Day 5: Nach Wien

(Above: Catbun enjoying a last look at the goldfish in our room.)

We had one more sight to see today before leaving Prague, since our train wasn’t until the early afternoon: the Museum of Medieval Art, conveniently housed in the convent of the Sisters of St. Agnes, just a short walk from our hotel.

I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to the Maximilian; we had a lovely stay there even accounting for the mysterious lack of top sheets and indifferent-if-extant air conditioning that haunts Europe generally. Happily, there was safe storage for our luggage, so after our checkout we made our way through the streets one last time and entered the little cloister.

This is still a working convent, I believe, though I did not see anyone wearing religious garb – and what remains of the old convent’s interior is just that – an interior, with very little in the way of furnishings or signifiers to indicate that one room was once much different from another. But the main reason one is there is, of course, the art, so let’s get to that.

It’s medieval art, and from that we can assume a number of common traits: religious subject matter, frequently anonymous artists, a wide and varied range of degrees of mastery when it comes to things like perspective and naturalism.

Oh, and photobombs. Usually by angels. You would seriously be surprised juuuuust how often in medieval art an angel is like “oh hey, guys!” and pops into the picture at a random angle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with much of what’s going on in the pictures.

Some of the art is legitimately beautiful and contemplative; it’s easy to imagine how in the gray-brown world of the medieval peasant the church may well have been the only place where one was able to see beautiful things. One of the only places, perhaps I should say. There were always the flowers of the field, and the sky after a rain, and the like. But there was a time when almost all of what we think of as visual art was to the greater glory of god, and this collection of it is rather fine.

Some of it I recognized – some Dürer woodcuts, rather flagrant in their apocalyptic-ness. Much of it I did not: altarpieces that folded up, cleverly arranged so as to show an arrangement of saints no matter how they were folded; a wide variety of carved wooden crucifixes and pietas and painted lamentations. Over and over again Mary Magdalene washes Jesus’s feet with her hair; over and over again Christ goes to the Mount of Olives, over and over again, disciples gather at his feet, or in darkened rooms too like a tavern in Bohemia to be strictly accurate.

Some of them are lovely, if somber, scenes. Some of them, to a modern eye, read a bit differently than the artist (probably) originally intended. Matthew looks serious, Mark looks as if he is thinking about lunch, Luke has the wary hesitant half smile of someone not sure if the camera is pointing at him, and John seems entirely Over It, thank you. Gathered at the crucifixion, invention seems to have run out when it came to coming up with different expressions of agony or grief for the disciples to display: here profound sorrow, there a grimace of pain, here something more evocative of digestive distress than emotional angst. A Roman soldier in the wrong armour for his place and time flashes the viewer some distinctive side-eye, as if to say “Can you believe this shit?”

I feel a little disrespectful, admittedly, stating these observations out loud…but honestly, that really IS how it looked. Still, it’s a lovely collection, and aside from the inevitable squad of schoolchildren, a pleasantly un-crowded one for our final Prague sight.

Outside is a little sculpture-garden, including this charming little playhouse that is apparently actually one of the sculptures.

I wonder if anyone is allowed to play on it? The school group was nowhere to be seen at the time, so there was nobody around to test the theory.

By now it was getting on to that time, so we headed back to the Maximilian, where we reclaimed our bags and hopped into a cab headed for the main station. Here we thanked our past selves for that run out to Kutna Hora a couple of days ago: nothing like a little practice with the trains to make finding your platform, etc, a little easier. A short wait later and we climbed aboard a train headed for “Wien Hbf,” aka Vienna (the “Hbf” is the typical abbreviation for “Hauptbahnhof” or main train station.)

We had first-class tickets for this trip – an odd quirk of the Prague-Vienna trains is that you can purchase tickets for them through either the OBB (the Austrian transit authority that actually runs the train as far as I can tell) or CD (the Czech rail system, pronounced something like “Chesky drah-hee”)…and the Czech price can sometimes be cheaper for precisely the same seat. As we also bought well in advance, this meant we could easily swing a spot with a bit more leg room for our 4-hour trek.

One thing I remember from my last trains-in-Europe experience is that for some reason one always expects that the borders will feel more distinct than they are – as if somehow crossing from Italy to Germany will result in the grass being a different green or something, which of course is nonsense. In this case, pretty pastoral countryside continued on both sides of the border, broken up occasionally by assorted small towns and the like. The only really notable differences? Signs swap primary languages from Czech to German (meaning I was no longer QUITE functionally illiterate, hooray) and at the last Czech stop we were slightly astonished to see just about everyone else in the car pile out of the train, which lingered a bit longer than normal. Perhaps the staff have to swap when the border changes?

In any case, it was a very comfortable journey, even with minor hiccups like an in-seat food ordering system that didn’t quite “take” when we put our order in for some sandwiches.

Another thing I remember is how striking the differences between train stations could be, and the transition from Prague’s to Vienna’s was marked by a sudden spike in signage, as well as in available staff who could point you toward whatever it was you were looking for – in our case the 13A bus toward Siebensterngasse, which wound through the streets of the city to an area that gradually began to resemble Queen West.

Vienna was described to me as being “basically Toronto” before this trip, though I’m not entirely sure I agree. For one, there is a notable lack of either the kind of glass and steel condo developments that all of residential downtown seems to be gradually turning into or the skyscrapers that make up most of the “business” downtown. Instead, you have relatively tidy blocks of three-to-five story buildings, many of which seem to subscribe to some sort of unspoken (or perhaps it’s quite spoken, and I just don’t know that) European building code: windows shaped just so, and double-glazed after a fashion, with a casement that opens inward and another that opens outward. Facades to be white, or at least aiming for white; signage neat and prominently displayed in blue and white.

Oh, and for a second difference: unlike Toronto’s, the public transit in Vienna actually works. It’s brisk and efficient, just make very sure you have validated your ticket or else you may be liable for a stiff fine.

We hopped off at Siebensterngasse and looked round for our next lodgings, eventually locating the green “Hotel Kugel” sign near the corner. This is a hotel dating back to the 1800s, and a certain retro quality was present throughout its fittings (thankfully, there’s a modern if tiny elevator.) Our room was every bit as frilly as one could possibly hope for in Vienna:

Alas, still no top sheet, but a very welcome fan. A nice view, too:

Once our bags were dropped off safely, we pondered our next course of action, eventually settling on “let’s go get oriented with our first evening, the way we did in Prague.” We’ve been following the Rick Steves guide for this trip, and a ride around the Ringstrasse tram with an audio tour we downloaded seemed like just the thing.

With a little help from Google Maps we worked out the right general direction and set off. Things you notice almost immediately:

  • Traffic lights are back. I don’t think we saw one of these in Prague anywhere; as Jan noted on our food tour, whatever is coming from the right has right of way, and since everyone knows this, voila, no fuss. (Though I admit to having found it disconcerting.)
  • A number of the traffic lights for pedestrians in Vienna represent same-sex couples, waiting patiently (or perhaps snuggling) side by side when the light is red and strolling gaily across when it’s green, with a little heart between them. They’re extremely cute.
  • The streets here seem to have far fewer windings and tangles than in Prague. One gets the sense that more of the growth here was planned rather than organic – and perhaps it was; one doesn’t have to be more than an indifferent student of history to recognize that Vienna was an imperial capital for a very, very long time.

A few blocks away from the Siebensterngasse stop, the street bumped into a little flight of stairs. Curious to see whether these would allow us to cut straight through a block, as the little arched tunnels in Prague often do, we tried them – and found ourselves going down a much, much longer flight of stairs into something labeling itself prominently “Museumsquartier.” (At a guess, this is because, well, there were some museums and galleries here judging by the signs; notably modern art if these were anything to go by.)

The sort of square at the base of the stairs was clearly setting up for some sort of concert, but almost all of the space not populated by workers and steel constructs was taken up by abstract couches in bright purple, populated by the sort of fashionable young people who make me feel rather drab at the best of times, all eager German conversation.

Beyond this, we emerged onto a street fronted by a grand-looking park dominated by a large sculpture of a woman enthroned who reminded me a little of statuary of Victoria, flanked by some fairly spectacular buildings; as a sign nearby read “M. Theresien-platz” I assumed this must be Maria Theresa. (Future Me: I was right, as the next morning would confirm.)

Past this and round a corner we made it at last to the Ringstrasse – the innermost of Vienna’s ring roads that encircles its densest concentration of sights. Here we had a bit of a disappointment: the tram stops here for several blocks had a sort of blue metal cross-like thing mounted over each of them. “Verlassen,” it said. Lost? No. What the hell was that word? I eventually resorted to Google Translate and had an unpleasant surprise: “Abandoned.”

It seems that a chunk of the ring tram is out of commission at the moment. Lovely. Well, so much for THAT plan. Instead we made for the nearest likely source of dinner – a sort of pub-like restaurant with a propensity for collecting beer themed kitsch in a variety of languages. Well. It’d do; we settled in for a reasonably tasty schnitzel and some kind of meat-filled dumplings with sauerkraut and planned our next move.

This was, as it was getting late, simply to do a stroll around the Opera area, taking in the sights. Vienna in the evening was sedate, but in a charming sort of way and around behind the Opera house was one of those things that’s on the Vienna bingo card:

That’s Cafe Sacher, home of the Sachertorte – a dense chocolate cake with a fruity center layer and a ganache-like icing. You may have heard of it? Anyway, why the hell not – we headed in and placed an order for two of them, with a coffee each.

Or a “melange,” rather – something like a cappuccino. Coffee isn’t served here with milk separately as it is in North America; if you want milk in your coffee it’s best to order it in a preparation that includes some.

The tortes were brought to the table by a waitress in an honest to goodness maid outfit, and came with a little seal of officialness, also in chocolate:

Drier than I was expecting, but tasty all the same.

On that note we headed off to bed. Another long day tomorrow.

Have a nighttime view of Vienna or two while you wait for the next post:

Day 4: Opulence, of several kinds

Our final full day in the Czech Republic dawned bright and cool, and we set out with a plan: to try for a non-hotel breakfast at the recommended-by-the-food-tour-folks Cafe Savoy, over in Prague’s Little Quarter. This would, we knew, demand some careful timing, since the other priority for the morning was to visit Prague Castle, and we hoped to beat some of the numerous tour groups to the punch (as much as possible anyway.)

So it was that we found ourselves outside the cafe several minutes before it opened, in the company of a few early-morning businessfolk and a handful of people who had the look about them of tourists like us. After a few minutes, a young fellow in kitchen whites emerged to set out baskets of pansies and a waiter in a straight-up tuxedo (sans jacket) began seeing to seating for everyone.

Having heard the French toast here was to die for, and knowing we had a long day ahead of us, we ordered the “French breakfast,” which was…massive.

It also cost about as much as a nice dinner out in Toronto, but since literally everything was delicious as well, somehow I found it difficult to mind all that much.

As we prepared to leave for another round of heavy walking, I stopped to visit the WC – I mention this purely because the area outside said WC is a glassed-in overlook that lets you watch the crew in the pastry kitchen do their thing. While the placement is disconcerting, it’s pretty cool to watch; I recommend having a look if anyone reading this one day happens to go there.

Next stop: Prague Castle. Sort of. We got on the tram heading the wrong way, but fortunately this was readily corrected.

Our travel book made quite a point of saying “Be at St. Vitus’s Cathedral at nine,” but it wasn’t until our slightly delayed arrival at about 9:10 or so that we discovered why: guess where all the tour groups start? …Yeah. Dodging a crew of Russians and at least two of those big crews of Chinese travelers, we bought our tickets and dove for the cathedral entrance.

It’s curious how much the cathedral feels like the heart of the castle. Perhaps this is simply because the castle is no longer a “working” castle: the rooms where the business of governing was actually done are largely empty of furnishings now, waking up only briefly as tourists come to observe them before rolling over and going back to sleep. Once upon a time, kings were crowned here, in the chapel of St. Wenceslas, where the saint’s bones are interred.

St. Vitus himself is here as well, or at least he’s got a reliquary.

There’s also the biggest of the bells in the area, affectionately known as “Zikmund.”

We wandered for a while, taking in the interior (at least as much as was possible around the already-getting-dense crowds.). Here, I’ll share a few views:

The castle interior itself is much simpler: the hefty architecture the Middle Ages tended toward when it wanted to get things done. There is at least one hall that must at one time have been very grand, though:

And there is also the infamous window where the Defenestration of Prague took place:

Quite a lot of madness from such an ordinary-looking window.

We also got a chance to explore “Golden Lane,” a tiny little medieval shopping street that has partly been re-populated with little dioramas of the sorts of shops that filled the place at various points in history and partly with actual shops of ponderous touristiness.

Notable, for me at least, were a rendering of the house of a medium (above) who was quite popular before she was taken in by the Gestapo (as with so many stories like this, it Did Not Go Well) and of a local journalist and intense fan of old films who used to run screenings out of his living room.

I’m…legitimately not sure at this point how many stories I have heard on this trip that seem to end with some variation on “…and then they were taken by the Gestapo.” That always seems to represent the ending when it comes; an uncomfortable full-stop that makes even reading the plaque feel awkward. As though the curator were darting me an awkward glance before moving on with their description.

As we started down the very, very steep hill that pointed us back toward the city centre, we took a pause to tour Lobkowicz Palace. It’s a pretty place, though not over the top extravagant, and visiting it is, for those reading this who played D&D with me, a very VanDeen-y affair. The noble family of the Prince(s) of Lobkowicz lived here, or at least they did until they lost everything in WWII. Then they got it all back, then lost it again under the communists, then got it back again. Now they run a museum that from the sound of it helps them keep the lights on and restorers available for the ongoing maintenance of their vast stashes of goods.

Said stash includes the expected accoutrements of nobility: fine porcelain, silver, paintings of pastoral scenes and engravings by Piranesi. One room contains a collection of paintings of dogs, apparently something of a family fixation; another is populated with images of birds composed largely of the feathers of the bird in question.

It seems the princes were avid followers of the arts in general; the collection also includes a Mozart rearrangement of Handel’s “Messiah” with notes in his own hand, and several scores dedicated to a prior Prince of Lobkowicz who was, I shit you not, Beethoven’s patron. (Things I learned: originally Beethoven planned to dedicate his “Eroica” to Napoleon. However, by the time it was finished, Beethoven was sufficiently unimpressed that he re-dedicated it to the then current prince of Lobkowicz, striking out his earlier dedication with enough force to rip holes in the paper.)

There’s also a painting of the famous defenestration – or rather, what happened shortly afterward. It approaches the situation from a rather different point of view than other accounts we’ve heard to date, however: here, the nobles who were flung out of the window have fled to the Lobkowicz palace for protection, and a family ancestress is shielding them from the angry horde.

The museum also includes an audio guide narrated with rather endearing earnestness by the current…is it still prince? I’m not sure…with cameos from his wife and mother in law. It’s a curious mix of enthusiasm for the collection and impressive manifestation of privilege (Though I did enjoy the anecdote about his father riding a bicycle up and down the grand halls.) At least the desire to preserve all this for future generations seems to be in earnest, and in that I wish them all the best.

Our next stop was perhaps more amusing than classy: Speculum Alchemiae, a slightly cheesy little attraction that sprang up after massive flooding unearthed an honest to god alchemist’s lab tucked away under one of the local houses.

Prague has a tendency to flood: in fact, the level of the city has been raised a few times over the years, and on some much-older buildings the effects of this can be seen. At the old town hall, what is now the cellar used to be the street level, and the former windows are still clearly visible; here, the house where once an alchemist plied his trade sits several feet below the more modern buildings nearby.

The flood unearthed a series of tunnels, one of which led directly to the castle, and in these, supposedly, documents were found that clued everyone in as to what the place once was. These same documents were then used to reconstruct the way the lab may have looked, long ago. It’s a little bit cheesy, but amusing to visit, complete with glassworks, distillery and storage space for a variety of herbs. And hey, it has a secret bookcase.

Mark bought a small clay phial of something that purports to be an elixir of youth, though I suspect its primary virtues may have less to do with revitalizing the flesh than with adding a cute trinket to a bookcase.

Here we paused for a break at our hotel’s “honesty bar,” after picking up a bottle of water at the nearest convenience store, and I surprised myself by downing almost a litre of it without really stopping. I get the sense I am really burning a lot of water just walking around; so far it’s been very humid everywhere we go.

Today was planned as food tour day, so there was time for just one more stop on the way: the Mucha museum, wherein I got to see real life versions of many of those cheap prints seen in college dorms everywhere, including mine. Some of those posters from his Paris period are a LOT bigger than you’re thinking if you’ve only ever seen the prints, as well; Sarah Bernhardt in Medea may not have been quite life-sized, but she sure can dominate a wall.

Here also Mark and I made the happy discovery that there IS some art we can agree on after all – both of us find things to love in Mucha. For him, there is the interplay of forms, I love the use of colour and the swirling, delicate lines; we both love his knack for expressions and symbolism. This is especially fun when looking at some of his work that comes in sets – seasons, flowers, etc.

In the back of the museum is a movie detailing more about Mucha’s life – patronage, contracts, his distaste for society and his patriotic dreams. (We did not make it out to see the Slav Epic this time, but one of these days I should really look into it.) They had some works I’d never heard of before there, let alone seen – like the rather haunting “Star.” Like the Slav Epic, this one has political meaning as well – Mucha painted it in response to hearing about the suffering of the common folk of Russia post-Bolsheviks.

On the one hand, I feel a bit shallow for enjoying works of his that were, essentially, just advertisements; I cannot imagine hanging the average ad that appears on the TTC in my living room. Then again, I may possibly have bought a print of one of his works for myself. Blame my affinity for the “The Moon” card, perhaps.

This done, we headed to the meeting point for our food tour…which we almost missed, even so, after first getting the place right, then thinking we’d got it wrong, then hurrying back to the right one again.

Our guide for the evening was Jan, a guy about our own age who’d studied briefly in the USA and done translation work in the land of high finance before eventually deciding he’d had enough and switching to full-time foodie tourism. Everyone ELSE on the tour was young ladies from the States, most from LA, and most “between jobs,” though I am uncertain quite what that means exactly. This made parts of the experience a bit odd; for instance, I have never been in a room, ever, where people lit up as visibly as the LA girls did when he mentioned the Kardashians.

Ah well. All of us were there because we liked food, at least, so we had that in common. (And here, guys, I am going to do that thing I roll my eyes at people a bit for doing when they do it in restaurants in Canada…I photographed my food so I could share with you. Those of you this will irritate, feel free to skim over this bit.)

Here are sort of the primary take-aways from the entire affair: The Czechs are trying to re-establish a sort of Czech food identity after Communism. Communist life in the Czech Republic was, for most people, more boring than horrific according to Jan. Certainly the regime did a number on food, standardizing recipes down to the weight of ingredients to be used for each dish. Recipes served lots of people at once (the example he showed us served 100) and were the same pretty much everywhere – so if you didn’t like the bread (or whatever) at one place there was very little point in going anywhere else. Restaurants came in four “levels”; I’m not sure if there was much difference between the recipes available at a level 1 vs a level 4, but the part of me that loves going out to St. Lawrence or wherever finds the entire idea just soul-destroying.

Here’s the other important bit, though: as we all know, food is often about comfort for a lot of us. What do we crave when we want comfort? Food we remember from childhood. And what was childhood if you’re Czech and were born within living memory of, say, 1989? That bland gray age of Communist standardization.

This, plus the legitimate desire to create new food that’s still recognizably Czech, results in an interesting mishmash of nostalgia and enthusiasm, springing forth from kitchens staffed mainly by young Czechs. “Notice how young everyone is at all of the places we go,” he commented – and he was absolutely right.

Our first stop was a place called Mysak, where Jan’s mother had taken him as a child were he to get unusually good marks at the end of a term. This was an example of a place that had been family-run for ages and doggedly kept open throughout communism, only for the owner to pass away without anyone to pass the business to shortly after communism fell. A new generation’s picked it up, however, and it is once again a popular, slightly upscale spot. Here we had a petite open-faced sandwich topped with shrimp – an affluent indulgence in a landlocked country – and a kind of cream-filled glazed cruller called a “venecek” that I think I would have eaten my body weight in given the opportunity:

Here we paused for a bit of chat about pricing. There comes a point for everyone, it seems, where the idea of “what something should cost” becomes fixed in one’s mind. Perhaps about fifty or so. In the Czech Republic, this means that for many, “what food should cost” is “what food cost under communism,” so a lot of older Czechs especially don’t visit places like this because the food seems too expensive. There is certainly a kind of Overton window of costs where an amount of money becomes “a lot” to you; for me that’s about 100 dollars, but for Mark it’s rather higher. I wonder how much things like that change within one’s lifetime? I know $20 was once “a lot” to me, and then $50…Who knows, I suppose.

There is no “bank of mom and dad” in the Czech Republic, either: here, the generational wealth gap exists in the inverse of North America. At home, it’s older generations that tend to have money; here, the reverse. Sometimes this means that these older folks will even be resistant to fixing up a crumbling apartment block because doing so will raise rents: there are some buildings where younger tenants are literally waiting for older ones to die in order to conduct repairs.

On our way to the next stop, we poked our heads in at the main post office for Prague. They are very very serious about not taking photographs in there, so I don’t have any unfortunately, but it’s a surprisingly pretty building. It’s also open 24/7, and is the nexus for quite a few bits of Czech bureaucracy. (Another thing I learned today: Everyone has a mailing address here, even the homeless folks – their messages will just go to the post office proper and it’s their responsibility to check them.)

Stop number 2 of our tour was Kantyna, “the palace of meat,” a former Masonic temple turned fancy butcher shop-slash-eatery where you can order meat by weight and have it brought to you. This place is crazy busy, and a number of tables had reservations marked with numbered bones, but the tour group we were with has a special arrangement whereby sometimes they will set up a card table for those who’ve been on the tour. Appropriately to the setting they brought out a tray of pulled pork, dry-aged sausages, latkes fried in pork fat, and steak tartare.

The latter one eats by first vigorously rubbing the toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic; the garlic was pleasingly spicy, much more so than in Canada. I don’t know what causes that, but I wish I could have some to cook with at home!

We also had a dark lager called “Kozel” here. This is the gateway beer in this part of the world, apparently; the lighter stuff that teenaged girls drink. (Still not really my jam, but I figured if there was ever a “when in Rome” sort of occasion this was it.)

On our way to our next stop we learned another interesting factoid: you know that Jewish quarter we visited? There are still some Jews in Prague, but not many: only 1500 or so officially registered, most over 55. This came up because the former Jewish quarter was home to stop number three: Lokal, a small chain with just a few locations that is riffing on the classic Czech pub.

These are trading on the aforementioned communist nostalgia very hard, naturally, which means that walking into one is a bit like walking into the legion hall at first glance: comfortable if spartan-looking seating, a long bar, painted stencilwork on the wallpaper. The “riffing on” element becomes more apparent when you look more closely at the walls: wood paneling that looks very 70s has been gouged with graffiti-like carvings that are lit from behind. A decorative feature, not defacements.

This is because, as we learned on sitting down, the local pub is a place where you go to do two things, mainly: drink, and talk to your friends, largely to complain about all the things in your life that make you crazy. So there’s no music being played (a difference from Canadian pubs I didn’t register at first), and the food on offer is mostly of the “stuff you serve with beer” variety.

Czechs drink a lot of beer. A LOT. Jan showed us a typical beer-ordering card, a long strip with many, many little outlines of mugs of beer on it. When the waitress sees you’re empty, or running low, she’ll come by with another, marking off one of the outlines, unless and until you explicitly say “no more.” At the end of the night you cash out – a procedure Jan referred to as “Czech dim sum.”

How many beers on the average do Czechs have this way? Eight or nine a night, easily.

We had just the one, this time a Pilsner Urquell lager that came from a giant tank under the bar. There are about six of these active in any pub at a given time, and they will go through three tanks in a night, easily. When refill time comes, a tanker truck full of beer pulls up to the pub and fills ’em up, gas station style.

…What do you eat with all that beer? Well, fried cheese is popular; this is served with tartar sauce (?) and tastes about as awesome as fried cheese generally does. There was also a Hungarian-style goulash, and chicken schnitzel served with a warm, vinegary potato salad.

Here we also learned something that might possibly explain why Prague was so much less crowded than I had anticipated: apparently the Czechs love going to the cottage on holiday weekends as much as Canadians do, so a goodly chunk of the city may have been out for a time.

Next stop, a second meat-themed spot, Nase Maso, for a sample of their meatloaf sandwich.

About this, I cannot say much except that it was very tasty, and they have provided us with the recipe, which I may try one of these days when I have people over. We did learn an interesting factoid about the place, though: there is a wine bar nearby, and you can apparently have the butcher shop grill you a steak and bring it over. (I must confess I rather like the idea of summoning a steak like this, though I didn’t get the chance to test drive it. Ah well. On a future trip perhaps.

Onward, again – and outward in this case, to the neighbourhood of Kalin well outside the touristy zones of the city; rough-but-gentrifying, perhaps the closest Torontonian analogue would be the Junction. Here, tech companies have settled in, and a little crop of restaurants trying out new things have sprung up to serve them. As we headed to our first stop here, we passed a lengthy queue; investigation revealed that playing that night was Bobby McFerrin. (There’s a name I haven’t thought of in a while…)

Next stop, Eska, a trendy-looking spot where we were seated “at the chef’s table,” near the kitchen. Here we were treated first to a gin and tonic crafted with an artisanal gin by a local, along with a seriously adorable little amuse-bouche crafted with radish slices and edible flowers:

I love the water-lily look. This was followed by a modern riff on what is apparently a popular Czech campfire dish: “ash potatoes,” which as the name suggests are potatoes tossed into the campfire ashes to roast. Ours were served a bit more elaborately than that, though:

This was a kind of deconstructed baked-potato affair, and it was seriously delicious. As we waited for our next course, we watched the kitchen doing its thing. (Jan commented “They say there are three things you can watch forever: fire, the sea, and other people working.”)

Perhaps he’s right about that; it was weirdly gratifying to watch the kitchen staff as they boiled, roasted, plated…

The next course was mushroom-oriented: a sort of fermented wheat berry risotto-like substance rich with mushroom flavours.

The Czechs apparently not only eat a lot of mushrooms but forage for them regularly as well; all Czech students receive some basic mushroom education in school, and many towns have a sort of mushroom assistance agency that will help you identify the mushrooms you’ve made it back with. These are staffed by “Unabomber weirdo types,” as he put it, but they’re quite knowledgeable, and foraging can be a way to make some extra cash if you know what you’re doing.

Above: “pre-dessert,” a little nibble before we headed out. Whee!

Our final stop for the evening was the Krystal bistro for a traditional Czech dessert: plum dumplings with butter, poppy seeds, and stewed plums, paired with another local artisanal spirit: a walnut brandy. Both dumpling and brandy were lovely: warm and comforting, buttery, fruity density and woody acidity together.

At the end of the evening Jan had some additional gifts to see us off: tram tickets back to the old town, and a Koh-I-Noor pencil for everyone. These are apparently a Czech innovation, too. File that under things I didn’t know, certainly…

By this time we were so full we were more than happy to just head back to the hotel and collapse for the night, thank you. Anyone thinking of going to Prague who likes food, though: go do this. It was a great time, it was delicious, and I’ll be giving them some good internet ratings when I get back to Toronto.

Tomorrow: we head to Vienna.

Good night, Prague. It’s been fun!

(Please enjoy Mark with this painting of chickens.)

Day 3: Bones and silver in Bohemia

Note: I am absolutely still writing these, but as may already be apparent we have been crazy busy. Will get them up as time permits!

Day three of our trip saw us heading outside of Prague, to the rural city of Kutna Hora. This meant, of course, sorting out how to use the trains.

If you’re European I think you are likely born with a few extra points in the “Use Train” skill; as a North American I had to work a bit to dredge up the remnants of my backpacking knowledge. Right. Train number, car number, seat number. Even so, Prague’s main train station can be overwhelming. There’s a riot of…everything going on: crowds of people with giant suitcases, a somewhat puzzling-to-outsiders numbering system for the platforms that takes into account north or south platforms, different ticket windows for domestic vs international trains. Still, fortunately for us the language of buying tickets is fairly universal: two, Kutna Hora, return. Slip of paper in hand, we headed for the departures board and thence to the platform…

Where there were a LOT of people waiting. Perhaps it is because Kutna Hora is just that popular, or perhaps it was because it happened to be The Holiday Variously Known as V-E day or “Victory Day” or (as was written on some signs in the Czech Republic) “Liberation Day.” Be that as it may, we only barely scored a seat on the train before it rolled out into the Czech countryside.

The city gave way to green countryside of the sort I have been watching so often in Mark’s playthrough of Kingdom Come, and the stations grew progressively smaller and…well, not dingier precisely. Careworn, perhaps, with weary-looking painted plaster walls encrusted thickly with graffiti.

Kutna Hora’s main station has two platforms, brown painted plaster, and, like Prague’s main station, a startling lack of staff. From there it was a matter of transferring to a tiny yellow train that lumbered along gently to our first stop of the day.

Kutna Hora is best known for two things: silver mining (the translation of the town’s name was presented to us at least once as “to mine the mountain”) and the Sedlec Ossuary, which you might already know as “The Bone Church.”

This tiny chapel had its cemetery consecrated with earth from the holy land, once upon a time – a desirable state of affairs if you are religious and it’s the Middle Ages. So popular was this place for burials that they ran very quickly out of room…and found themselves having to disinter old corpses to make way for new ones.

What to do with all those bones? I’m not sure who it was that said “I know! Let’s stack them up into impressive pyramids, hang them on all the available wall space we’ve got, and build us a memento mori that people who use the word “Goths” to describe themselves centuries from now will daydream about visiting!”

But here we are. It’s not a BIG ossuary – you can tour the whole in perhaps twenty minutes – but it’s definitely something.

It’s clearly popular with more than just the Goth set, too: the place was already pretty mobbed when we arrived, packed with assorted Russians, Germans, a handful of North American folks and at least one bus’s worth of Chinese tourists. I think the bit I liked best is this little detail from the crest of the local lord depicted here; a skull decked out in the style of an Ottoman Turk would be getting its eyes pecked out, if it had any, by a raven.

From there we had to find a place to catch a local bus a bit further in to the city centre. After some blundering about looking for the station (and making the discovery that English is less common outside Prague), we found ourselves waiting in the company of a very, very Goth-looking couple who had apparently hired a local guide for the day. The woman had jet-black dreads and a fairly epic Medusa tattoo; we saw the two of them around quite regularly for the rest of the day.

As we rode the bus, idly surveying the landscape of what looked like some of those little Communist-era apartments (painted in multicoloured plaster, like Prague, but far less romantic-looking), we happened to look right and see…an elephant.

Seriously. Real live elephant, just hanging out munching on some tree branches. A handful of people looking on as if to say “what the fuck do we do about this?” (A reasonable response really.)

As Mark and I swapped “WTF?” looks of our own, the local fellow guiding the Goths mentioned that the elephant was apparently an escapee from a circus that had come to town of late. Nobody was sure what to DO about it. (I wondered if he was having them on…but there WERE posters for a circus with recent dates.)

Hopping off the bus, it was time to walk downhill to St. Barbara’s Church. Remember how I said the name of the town is suggestive of mountains? I MEAN it about “downhill.” Imagine a town paved with mostly medieval cobbles (the hard rounded kind), pitched at about a 45 degree or more angle, and there you have it. The notion of cycling there is frankly terrifying.

St. Barbara’s is as Gothic as the ossuary, though more in the architecture sense than fans of, say, The Crow. Once upon a time, you see, this little town was not just wealthy but fantastically so; its silver mines were part of the Bohemian infrastructure that provided silver to most of Europe for a surprisingly long time. Professionals in coin minting were imported from Italy; the ruler of the land paid regular visits, and according to the locals this little place was once a contender for capital city of the region.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because this church was to be a no expenses spared showpiece, and you can kind of tell. Here, have a look:

This fellow is wearing what we would shortly learn is a miner’s uniform – sensible, as St. Barbara is patron of miners:

As it was lunchtime by now, we headed to a little pub-like spot on a public square, where we had a light lunch of “garlic soup with ham and cheese” and a lemonade we were relieved to find was made with lemons. (Previous experience had suggested that “lemonade” in Prague is more of a…family of beverages that might include all sorts of fruit.)

Then it was time to learn a bit more about where all this silver came from.

Silver mining in the Middle Ages was a scary business. Miners would crawl out of bed at a terrifyingly early hour to make their way down to the mine for their eight-hour shifts. To do this they would don a kind of white robe with a hood along with some sturdy leather apron-type garment that could be used to (for instance) slide down chutes deeper into the mine. Grab a tallow lamp and you’re all set to crawl in and set to…literally: exploratory passages were very low to the ground, to save the bother of mining out all that unnecessary stone. Miners worked in the near-dark, in damp tunnels, hunting for silver ore that was nearly black in its unrefined state; in the absence of visual cues they learned to rely on the feel of stone under hammers and picks, or on the smell of the dust. Smell something like garlic? You might be in luck! A complex system of code knocks helped them communicate with one another.

Miners had to be young unmarried men, and there is a great reason for that: the job was horrifically dangerous, and they lost something on the order of five miners per day.

Per day. Think about that for a second.

It was during our pre-mine talk with our guide Luci that we heard another possible origin of the town’s name, as well: a saint had a dream here once about some silver rods, and from these the town gets its name.

Poetic, but less likely, perhaps.

We headed down into the mines and got to hear a bit more about why they’re so dangerous: gases given off from wood as it rots underground, arsenic leaching from the stone into the water and poisoning everyone; losing your light and getting lost, tunnel collapses…et cetera. All in all I’m cool with my desk job, thanks.

As part of the tour we get to don the white miners’ robes ourselves (with modern helmets, fortunately) and squeeze into a tiny area of the mines. And I mean “turn sideways and squish through as tightly as possible” tiny. Here’s Mark in his outfit:

And here are some representative shots of the tunnels:

The mines are surprisingly wet; in at least one place you can shine the light from your helmet down to see water in a deeper shaft. How deep do they go? I’m not sure, but apparently nobody’s all that certain how many miles of tunnel exist just now. It was certainly interesting but overall…yeah, I am happy to be working above ground.

We also toured the above ground museum of silver with a lady who apologized profusely for her English, as she hadn’t used it in some 40 years (!). This bit of the tour I’ll just skim, as it was mainly collections of artifacts from the town accompanied by descriptions of how daily life was: medieval history fans, you probably already know all you need to know about this. I did enjoy the chest that locked and unlocked twelve locks at once using a single key:

For good measure, the real keyhole isn’t the visible one on the front, either.

The silver museum also has a temporary exhibit space. On right now: gingerbread.

I know, I know, but it IS some impressive gingerbread:

After this we took a stroll downhill to see the rest of Kutna Hora. It has some pretty impressive drinking fountain infrastructure:

This would have been quite necessary at the time it was built due to the other major side effect of the mining: turning the land around the town into an arsenic-blighted hellscape. Today the land around Kutna Hora is pretty pleasant and green, but they would have chopped down all the local trees either for wood or for charcoal, and for years had to have both wood AND water shipped in. Ugh.

Eventually we made our way down to the little pink train station to catch the train back to Prague. Here there was a bit of an unpleasant surprise: apparently it’s totally possible to end up standing the entire way to your destination if you haven’t reserved a seat. (Pro tip for anyone trying this in future.)

Still, there was nothing for it – and so, feet burning rather fiercely by now after a day’s hard haul over rough cobble at a steep angle, we rode. A woman carrying a bright pink Hello Kitty bag wandered the aisles the entire trip, I assume watching for a space to open up. A youngish guy who looked as though he could bench-press me checked his phone, the outline of a set of brass knuckles alarmingly plain through his jeans. Business folk checked emails and kicked off high heeled shoes as far as public decency would seem to permit. Countryside directly out of Kingdom Come eventually gave way to suburbs, and then to office towers, and then to Prague.

We weren’t quite done with the day yet, though: hopping onto the somewhat-grungy-but-still-pretty-effective metro, we made our way to the evening’s planned entertainment: the National Marionette Theatre’s production of Don Giovanni. (The Czechs apparently have an honourable tradition of puppetry, and we’ve heard that this was a superior choice to some of the “black light” theatre shows.)

The theatre is a cute little Art Deco-ish affair, and while I can’t show you photos of the performance (here’s a review with representative examples) it was actually quite entertaining in a whimsical sort of way. The puppets don’t do any singing – it’s a recording – but that’s fine, as the real star here is the surprising physicality of the puppeteers’ performance.

Yes, the characters on stage are puppets; but the show really leans in to that, with charming results. The show’s been cut significantly, of course, and if you don’t speak Italian I would advise reading the plot on Wikipedia or something beforehand so you will have at least a vague clue what’s going on. It’s also threaded through with wry and often dark nonverbal humor; when a puppet character “dies” the puppeteer sags over the rail as if their own strings have been cut, and a backdrop stubbornly refuses to unfurl, stalling the opening of a scene.

I think I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Mozart as the maestro. He’s controlled from below, unlike the other puppets, but his gestures are weirdly expressive and play nicely into what’s going on onstage. (And, of course, he premiered this show in Prague, so it’s appropriate.) At one point in the show he seemingly gets so frustrated by the other puppets’ antics that he just gets good and drunk and passes out, while the rest of the cast tries to work around his snoring form.

Eventually Giovanni gets hauled off to hell, the puppeteers have some amusing reactions to the overlong concluding sequence, and the audience files out.

In our case this was in search of a late dinner. This turned out to be some serviceable if unexceptional Czech food at a place Mark described as “what happens when The Witcher collides with a TGI Friday’s.” There was a tableful of blonde ladies eating fried cheese, and a very excited Japanese couple. Goulash for me, roast duck for Mark, with some more of those big bread dumplings. Beer lovers in the audience may wish to note that the beer was literally cheaper than the water. By, like, ten crowns.

This done, we headed back to the hotel to collapse, orienting ourselves via the House of Death, but not before spotting some more golem memorabilia on the way. (I think Mark has the pictures of that, sadly.)

An old travel diary, day 13: Cottage/Industry

This morning we bade farewell to Fairbank House over a breakfast of pancakes and set out for our final lodgings in Callendar.  Before that, however, we decided to do something a bit different and follow up on some signs we’d been seeing as we drove around Speyside yesterday for the “Knocando Woollen Mill.”  We’ve already tried to see woollens being handmade during our hunt for Harris Tweed on the Isles and failed due to poor timing – so why not investigate a different type of woolcraft here?
The mill’s undergone a recent renovation thanks to some money from the EU (I wonder what happens to that sort of thing now?), and to reach it you descend via one of those now-familiar tiny one-lane roads with passing places into a little sheltered valley with a river running alongside, bright and merry in the morning sunshine.  The greenery eventually parted, directing us to a spot where we could leave our car; hopping out, we ambled down a little gravelled path until, eventually, we reached a scene straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting by way of a fantasy novel.
A cluster of little buildings in the usual white stucco, cheery red doors bright and welcoming in the sunshine, surrounded a gorgeous little garden of flowers in a rainbow of colors.  The gravelled path led in a neat loop past a cafe (it seems to be in the rules that all Scottish attractions include a cafe), something labeled “The Old Cottage” and “The Old Shop,” and a bigger building that was obviously the mill itself.  A black-painted waterwheel turned sedately, fed by a lede from the river nearby.
Pastoral as hell, in other words.
Thoroughly charmed, we made our way over to the mill to investigate; a sign out front explained that today they were spinning and carding natural brown Shetland wool and encouraged us to come inside for a look – so this we did.
I don’t know how much experience you have with industrial settings (I am tempted to add “dear reader” here, like a Victorian writer), but when I go into one I generally expect…I don’t know, noise and grit and a general atmosphere of misery.  Not so much, here.  There was a quiet rumble of machinery, and a young bearded fellow piling armfuls of rough nubs of brown wool into a hopper for the first of two carding machines, great hulking things with rotating barrels lined all round with metal wires like very fine-bristled hairbrushes, combing the fibers straight and smooth and (importantly) largely parallel.  On the other end a wide, felted band of rough wool was carried along a cloth belt to a second machine, where it was gently laid and layered at 90 degrees to the fibers’ current orientation as though someone were piping out icing the color of milky coffee.
The second machine, tended by a young lady in Doc Martens and a T-shirt for a band I couldn’t readily identify but was probably (at a guess) punk, passed the wool through a second series of wiry rollers and out again as a much narrower band of unspun wool, wound onto a series of bobbins that would then be loaded, about thirty at a time, into the pretty fast spinning machines that lined one side of the workroom.  These weren’t in operation at the moment, but a later video would demonstrate how they worked, pulling the yarn out…and twisting…and winding the lot into spools of thread that could then go to the looms.
The looms also weren’t running this morning, but they look…pretty much exactly the way looms you’ve seen in movies look, and function about the same as well: the warp threads are tied in by hand, carefully threaded through a headache-inducing tangle of combs with little “eyes” in the wires in accordance with the pattern selected for weaving.  Given that much of what the mill produces is tweed of various sorts, which often has a fairly delicate pattern with just a few threads of a contrast color here and there, I’d be pretty worried about mis-threading…but then I guess I haven’t had hours on hours of practice, either.  Once that’s all done, the magic happens: the looms fire shuttles of wool back and forth to actually weave the  pattern, slowly producing a bolt of pretty cloth.
If the cloth in question is to be used for a purpose like, say, upholstery, then the process is finished.  If it’s to be used for something soft, however, like a scarf or pillows, then the final machine in the mill comes into play.  This raises a “nap” on the fabric for a softer hand by passing the fabric gently through two more great big rollers.  Instead of metal wires, however, these are lined with the natural equivalent: the heads of burdock plants, which are heavily encrusted with little “hooks” that catch at the fibers and raise a warm, fluffy halo.
The entire process takes place in pretty much the one old building, though a more contemporary facility tucked in behind the mill appears to house some sort of experimental turf: it wasn’t open to the public, but peeking in through the glass windows showed a workshop where several folk were busily doing mysterious things with colored threads.
The accompanying exhibition told us a bit more about the mill and environs.  Once, a long time ago, the entire valley would have been covered in little mills like this one, which was built in the 1700s, but only the mill at Knockando remains in operation today.  (The mill-wheel is largely cosmetic, sadly, though it does generate a little power.) Other mills were lost to combinations of various factors: land takeover as part of “the clearances,” economic depression, or in many cases a huge and devastating flood.
This one was perilously close to going under as well after its long neglect, but was rescued from loss and decay by one of our tribe: a young social sciences student who felt strongly that the mill was part of local heritage and deserved to be maintained.  He did not, sadly, know anything about the actual process, but luckily this mill had run for a long time and there was still at least one old-timer around to teach him the ins and outs.  So it is that – again thanks to that EU money – the Knockando wool mill is still up and running, producing mainly small “boutique” runs of specialty tartans and tweeds, often in collaboration with other organizations.  (In the shop there were a variety of these patterns on display and for sale, including the “Knockando” tartan that reflects the design of one of the mill’s windows – a large central pane surrounded by smaller ones – and a design produced in collaboration with a Swedish organization in bright, vivid colors.
I confess to a moment of weakness; I picked up a scarf in a bright, colorful plaid of the “mini moorland” pattern.  It’ll go with just about any color of coat I can think of, and in any event it feels kind of cool to support a business like this one.  I wasn’t alone, either; as we roamed the grounds a fellow visitor was carefully arranging her own purchase (a larger shawl) for an Instagram-ready photograph among the garden’s flowers, the pinks and yellows and blues of the blossoms matching exactly the threads shooting through the earthy grayish-green of the background.
There’s something about visiting a place that is just so thoroughly…pleasant that has a buoying effect; this was perhaps lucky, for as the road brought us up and out of the green, rolling hills of Speyside the sky began to cloud over, and we soon found ourselves driving through the kind of light but steady rain that’s been with us at least once a day since our arrival.
And so, we drove for a time.  The number of sheep gradually became less (though of course they did not disappear entirely); the rockiness of the countryside further abated as we approached the border with the lowlands.  Not completely, though: our next destination, Callander, sits right at the jumping-off point for quite a bit of outdoor activity, much of it in the mountains of the Grampians or the Trossachs.
A search for a visitor-information centre brought us to a stop none of us had anticipated and that few of us were entirely certain what to make of: The House of Bruar.
That sounds grand, and in a sense it is, but it’s not, as you might think, a stately home. It’s a store, a huge and rather elaborate one, advertising itself as the paragon of Scottish country stores.  From this I glean that the Scots and I define that phrase a bit differently.  When I hear “country store,” I think of the tiny Meador Grocery down the road from my grandfather’s farm, with the plywood-walled addition that housed its banks of flattened videos and the Friday night fish fry.  This?  This was something of an entirely different species.
To give you some idea of what we were dealing with, we entered via the “Menswear Hall,” which had a “Cashmere and Knitwear Hall” below that.  From there it was an easy walk to the “Country Living” hall – a sprawling two floors of linens, kitchenware, and decor with antlers – and thence to the wing containing the restaurant, food hall, ladies’ wear hall (with annex for leather and furs) and children’s wear hall…all of it forming a great U around a central glass-roofed courtyard.
Inside, the various “halls” were crammed to the gills with frighteningly posh goods: gourmet food, cashmere sweaters on sale at £149 (down from £200!), decor liberally embellished with antlers, hip flasks that cost upwards of £130, crystal bowls etched with patterns of red squirrels that I was afraid to breathe in the general direction of, let alone pick up to look at the price…
In other words, it was Bass Pro by way of the Hamptons.
Somewhere in Scotland there are people who think nothing of visiting this place and dropping the equivalent of thousands of Canadian dollars on a tweed suit, or hundreds of dollars on a picnic hamper of gourmet bits and bobs.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people for whom “the country” means genteel pursuits like riding and cricket and boating and golf; for whom this is the equivalent of stopping to gear up before going to the cottage for the weekend.  Somewhere in Scotland there are people who are as far removed from the idea I have of “the country” as I am from the surface of Mars.
The masses.  The classes.
The one percent.  Or, from certain points of view, the problem.
Hardly anyone there was OF “the classes,” mind you.  I suppose the rest of the folk visit to shop aspirationally, treat themselves, or perhaps just daydream about what it might be like to be part of the problem in their own right.
We did find the visitor information centre, in the end; the young man there pointed out a couple of the locations on our historic Scotland passes that he’d been to.  The first of these, Stanley Mills, was en route to our destination for the evening, so we headed there.
At first, despite the signage, we thought we’d made a mistake.  Oh, the buildings looked about right – tall stony edifices that made a rough square, a street lopping off one side of it into a chunk of freestanding…offices, from the look of what we could see through the windows.  Certainly not open to the public – though there was a nearby power station with an obvious “here’s how this power station operated a hundred years ago” placard out front, so we had to be close.
Eventually, we made our way to one end of the “u” portion of the square, where another sign finally directed us to the right point of entry.  The staffer on duty explained a lot by saying that only part of the mills were retained as a historic site; one side of the “u” was condos, while the freestanding chunk was indeed office space, rented out by the Trust.
All righty then: onward, in any event.
The Stanley Mills were named, as one might already be thinking, for a Lord Stanley; when industrialization became a Thing in the 1800s, he felt that getting on that particular bandwagon might be a good plan, and there was a burgeoning market for cotton in its various forms, so he bought up some used equipment from down in England and then gave all the crofters on his land an offer: Come work at the mill!  Better housing and jobs for everyone!
Wee problem with this statement: if you didn’t want to take him up on the offer, you couldn’t just carry on working the land if you wanted to.  He had other plans for that land, thanks, and if you weren’t going to join the mill and contribute…well, then, kindly bugger off, you useless gits.
Second wee problem with this statement: while the housing almost certainly was better, whether the jobs were better was…debatable, and that’s even if there was one for you.  The mills only rarely hired men, you see.  Why do that when you could pay women so much less, and children even less than that?
They were the sort of working conditions that brought us Upton Sinclair and Karl Marx, too: absurdly long hours, low wages, and horrifically dangerous conditions.  The machines were noisy, and most workers had hearing damage; small children had to scurry under machines to clean out fibers and could easily lose fingers or hands in the process.  A fine dust of cotton detritus filled the air constantly, giving many workers a terrible cough that lingered, perhaps for the rest of their lives – and worse, it was highly flammable; a single spark could set a huge area alight in an instant (needless to say, the fire escape protocols weren’t well-developed, either.)
Still, production was steady (with the exception of a closure from about, oh, 1860-1865…some sort of trouble or other in the States) and eventually the mill secured its future – for a time – by developing a technique for producing strips of linen that were used in cigarette factories to help form the cigarettes before rolling; this was a closely guarded secret, and the women (always women) in that part of the factory got to work in an area with blacked-out windows.   Later came work crafting heavier goods – for example belts of heavy cotton, soaked in tar, that would run heavy machinery and power things like tanks during the war.
In the end it was synthetic fibers that caused the mill to shut down – though not at the time or for the reasons you might think.  Hoping to capitalize on the vogue for acrylics, the mill switched its machinery to accommodate this new wonder fiber…but then, when cotton once again became popular in the 80s, the mill could no longer afford to switch back to supporting its earlier product.
That’s right.  The place ran right up into the 80s before finally shutting down.
The presentation was excellent, I’ve got to say.  Lots of interactive presentations for kids (and playful/curious adults) to play with, including a simulation of the “let’s get the cotton fibers out of the machines without losing a finger!” game that those long-ago kids had to play and some really nicely-done demonstrations of the physics of the machinery – and the waterwheels and turbines that gave the mill its power before gas and electricity came along.
But it does make for an unintentionally compelling (and slightly disturbing) contrast to the morning’s exploration at Knockando.  One of these mills is (now) essentially a small artisanal operation; the other is a pretty bleak, if interesting, reminder of how little most of us appreciate where the things we wear and eat and decorate our homes come from.  Certainly I doubt that those someones who shop at the House of Bruar on their way to a weekend’s blithe enjoyment of rural pursuits spend much time thinking about it.
Do the people in the lofts ever think much of the suffering that went on in the buildings where they lived once?  Should they?  Perhaps sites, like people, can be redeemed over time?  Can happy lives lived in a place make easier its fit in the world around it, even if they cannot erase its history?
As we headed out to Callander for the evening I spent some time looking at my hands.  Fair, soft skin, neatly-trimmed nails, if a bit uneven in length.  By the standards of those mill workers in 1850, a high-born lady’s hands.  But it wouldn’t be one’s hands that mark one out as of “the classes” today, would it?  Our mill workers now are waitresses working for below minimum wage, call-centre employees paid by the call and desperate to rack up as many as they can. I may not lose a finger in a machine, but do some of us not bear other scars, less visible?
Perhaps grimmer thoughts than are really appropriate for a holiday.
Our lodging for the evening was the Abbotsford Lodge in Callander.  While I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect, I feel pretty confident that nobody was expecting what we got: a large house with multiple levels, an unusual fusion of European and Asian/Indian-style decor…and sort of creepily-good service throughout.  Our landlord spotted us hanging around in the lounge to plan our next move and offered everyone a complimentary dram of whiskey; the ensuing conversation informed us that he was an ex-oil man who’d met his wife in Kazakhstan and eventually settled in to run a guest house because it involved less trekking around to very very dangerous places.  (This explained his wife’s very unusual accent: someone whose first language wasn’t English that learns it from a Scot results in some very curious pronunciations.)
He also, by extension, revealed himself to be a pretty canny sort of fellow; I believe the drink was at least partly an excuse to investigate how put off we’d be on the idea of coming to Scotland thanks to Brexit (not that much) and partly a means of securing that all-important positive TripAdvisor review.  (I never use TripAdvisor at home, but here it seems to be by far the preferred Yelp-equivalent.)
On his recommendation we headed to a local pub called the Crown Inn for some venison casserole (in my case, anyway) and a chance to watch some of the football match between Wales and Portugal.  The pub proved to be more of a family restaurant than a proper pub, and the Welsh lost, to everyone’s sorrow.  Everyone loves an underdog, no?  And Portugal wins so much at football already!
Ah well.  They fought well in any case (though Mark still very much prefers baseball.)
More tomorrow.

An old travel diary, day 12: On the whiskey trail

Rolled out of bed this morning to find a really lovely breakfast going on downstairs; this particular B&B (a Fairbank House, in Dufftown) has it going on in terms of amenities. If only my allergies, or cold, or whatever it is, would settle!  I don’t seem to have gotten over my cold, or whatever it is that hit me so hard in Skye.
However, be that as it may.  There’s much to relate today – another busy day.
We opened at Balvenie Castle, quite near our lodgings.  This is another ruined castle, one originally known as Mortlach, and it took just a few minutes to roam the grounds and snap a few photographs of the walls.
From there we set out for Elgin, a medieval-era town featuring a dramatic cathedral as one of its centrepieces.  Doubtless it was even more impressive when it was whole; in the 1700s the central tower (a relatively recent renovation) collapsed (one Easter Sunday…hmm…) and people simply…stopped using the place for worship.  Perhaps somewhat understandable, given that prior to the collapse it was primarily used by the clergy – bishops and canons and so on.  A parish church this definitely was not.
What’s most interesting about visiting the cathedral today is the new (only just opened at Easter!) exhibition that lets you get up close and personal with the masons who built it, after a fashion.  These guys were responsible for carving…well, everything; every fragment of column and window frame, every ceiling boss and arch.  They were paid by the stone, and a careless slip of the chisel could mean the cost of the stone came out of their salaries – so if you look closely, you can see not only the marks designed to help align the stones, but also tiny marks indicating which mason was responsible, usually tiny patterns of lines (I’m not sure how literate the average mason would have been, but I’m guessing not very.)
Of course, when the cathedral collapsed, much of their art was lost – or cannibalized for other purposes – but the exhibition is nevertheless full of headless satyrs and other grotesqueries, Green Men, symbolic beasts like hares and lions, and faces whose wild expressiveness is at odds with the vogue for Grecian-styled serenity.  There’s even a ceiling boss that, if viewed from the right angle, reveals itself as being held by a crouching figure…who is completely anatomically correct.  Some sort of token of sin?  An in-joke by a mason who knew it’d never be seen?  Hard to say.
Incidentally, on the way to the cathedral our quest for directions led us by accident not to a general visitor centre but to the centre for Jameson cashmere.  This is a cashmere company so famous even I’ve heard of them; they hold a royal warrant, and their shop is full of beautiful, if conservative, things.  Sweaters in jewel-bright colors, ridiculously soft – and of course you can pay as much as you like for them.  Drool-worthy, but not incredibly feasible.
Unfortunately, by the time we’d gotten a bit mislaid and then seen the cathedral, we pretty much had to turn right round and hurry back to Dufftown, as we had an afternoon planned that had a bit more to do with another product for which the region is famous: whiskey.
This may have been just as well, as it was starting to rain as we made our way to the Speyside Cooperage, the only working cooperage in Britain that allows visitors.  A cooper is someone who makes barrels and casks, as you may be aware; a very old art, and a super important one considering that barrels and casks and buckets have been important parts of daily life for basically ever.  They’ve really committed to the cask theming, too: gigantic casks (donated from a brewery in Germany) outside contain picnic tables for visitors with a packed lunch in hand, while the attached tea room is filled with cask-based furnishings, from the tables and chairs to the “paneling” along the front of the bar.
Inside, a tour details the history and practice of the coopering craft; interestingly most of the work done there is repair work, rather than creating new casks.  Casks are crafted of North American white oak – yes, the wood is indeed shipped in – which is pared down to specially-sized planks.  Some of these are destined to become lids: these are fastened together with wooden dowels to form a larger flat surface, but otherwise untouched.  Others are to become staves – the walls of the barrel.
Exactly as was done hundreds of years ago, these staves are arranged in a round shape within a band of riveted iron, with another hammered into place to produce, essentially, a giant bucket.  This bucket is steamed to soften the wood, then carefully bent, with more bands of iron placed to create the classic barrel shape.  If the barrel is to be used for whiskey, then the interior of the barrel is charred slightly, which opens up the wood to allow for better interaction with the alcohol to be stored inside.  Lids are cut and beveled from the doweled planks and hammered into place, a long reed packed around each lid to form a watertight seal.  Et voila: a hogshead.  Modern machinery helps tighten the iron bands into place, and the cask is sent off for testing.
That’s for new casks, of course; when repairing casks it may be a simpler matter of replacing a damaged stave or lid, or scraping off an old, unusable layer of char and re-charring the oak.
The coopers at Speyside are paid by the cask, and apparently can repair on the average 20-25 casks every day; their fastest cooper can do up to thirty (!).  We had a chance to watch this guy at work and it was really something; it doesn’t seem really plausible for someone to wield a hammer that fast, let alone when working with hard oak and iron.  Still, it’s cool to see an ancient craft in use in the modern day, and it appears there’s plenty of local interest: the last apprenticeship that opened up got more than 100 applications.  (And yes, that’s a classic apprenticeship, with a journeyman supervising and everything.)
Here I learned something that becomes evident very fast if you hang around Speyside very long: everyone has different ideas about what the Most Important Thing in whiskey-craft is.  At the cooperage, they unsurprisingly said it was the barrels – the contact of oak and alcohol. (In fairness, this does seem to be somewhat borne out by the part where different designs of barrel will have greater or lesser effect on the flavor of the alcohol stored in it.  Want very oaky booze?  Opt for a smaller barrel, like a firkin; some distilleries insist on these.
I also learned that barrels like these have an active service life of about 60 years or so – a long time!  If you assume a resting time of 12 years, that’s five batches of whiskey, for example.
Our tour included a taste of a liqueur called “Stag’s Breath” that’s made with whiskey and fermented honey.  Probably unacceptably sweet to most serious whiskey fans, but I thought it  pretty delicious, actually – perhaps a bit dangerously so if you’re like me and like sweet things.
Anyway.  That adventure told us all about the barrels; but what about what goes in them?
To find out, we went (at the advice of my old travel book and of our landlady) to Glenfarclas distillery, one of the last truly independent distilleries in Speyside.  Sad but true: almost all of the other whiskies made here are in some manner in hock to the big boys at Chivas or Diageo or whatnot.  Glenfarclas, we were told, is still family-owned and operates in a more traditional manner – so of course that was the distillery we opted to see.
I’ll note here that Glenfarclas’s tour is not considered to be the best one.  Sources agree that the best distillery tour is Balvenie’s – but as waiting periods for that one can be a year or more, that one’s not really a viable option.
Be that as it may, we darted into the visitor centre at Glenfarclas out of a pouring rainstorm to find that a tour had just left – so we hurried to catch up.  The only two people presently on it were a couple from Nevada (I gather the guy was into sales of alcohol in some fashion and he seemed to really know what he was on about); I suspect they were not best pleased with the sudden incursion of a party of four Canadians, but they bore it well.  Our guide was an unassuming but pleasant fellow named Murray who rocked some tartan pants and got right into it with a will.
Whiskey starts with two main ingredients: water and barley.  The water in Glenfarclas’s case comes from a spring rather than from the nearby river or its tributaries – and has at least once been a limiting factor for them, as if the year is dry or they produce too aggressively they can find themselves without enough water to proceed.  Interestingly they seem fine with this, even telling our group they aren’t really interested in expanding much farther than they already have, remaining a relatively boutique product.
The barley, once harvested and threshed, is allowed to sprout (which turns the starch in the barley into sugars) and then toasted (the toasting process is known as “malting,” and is where the “malt” part comes from.). Air circulation is quite important during malting, and to this end most malting sheds are crowned with little structures that look like pagodas.  Supposedly these improve air circulation, but it does make for an incongruous little architectural detail.
The toasted grains are rather coarsely milled, and the resulting mess will then be combined with hot water and yeast to ferment.  (Yes, all of it, including the little bit of flour and the barley hulls.  The hulls prevent the mixture from becoming an airless paste; the flour prevents the water from passing into and through the mixture too quickly.)
Fermentation takes a surprisingly short time compared to everything else in the process, really.  In as little as sixty hours you can have…well, essentially a beer; alcohol, but not distilled.  This distillation takes place in a series of giant alembics, more or less; huge copper devices with bulbous bases and long necks.  The copper is apparently important to the final product, as it helps to remove sulphites and other substances that might cause unpleasant flavors in the whiskey.  Most distilleries heat their alembics with a coil that wraps around the base of the still, but Glenfarclas insists on the application of direct gas heating; Murray informed us that they experimented with the coil method but that it changed the taste of the  whiskey.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the distillery folk seem to feel that the single most important factor in whiskey is the shape of the still; a shorter, fatter still produces a whiskey with a heavier body, while a taller one will give you a lighter, airier result.  During distillation, extracts emerge from the stills into a spirit safe, in this case a kind of steampunk brass thing with a number of globes in it; an experienced still operator can tell from the color and behavior of the liquid emerging into the various gloves and pipes what the percentage of alcohol is and when to begin decanting the relatively small percentage of the substance that will eventually go into those casks to rest.
The resting, of course, is next, and at Glenfarclas the barrels are simply moved into great warehouses to wait out their maturation time.  During this rest – which may be very long – quite a lot of the liquid inside the barrel continues to evaporate away as the fabled “angels’ share.”  We saw more of these warehouses across the road from our B&B; once a distillery and now closed, the warehouses hold whiskey from a large number of distilleries in the area.  (This sharing of warehouse space is not uncommon in the industry in Speyside, it seems; perhaps they feel that it keeps them honest?  At any rate, Glenfarclas doesn’t participate; they like to keep themselves to themselves.)
As the whiskey ages, it takes on more qualities from the wood holding it, as well as losing some of that back-of-the-throat burn common in the youngest of the whiskies.  Once it’s sat there long enough, it’s finally bottled – and at last the tax that was owed the moment distillation started can be collected. (Murray joked that distilleries weren’t so much sellers of alcohol as tax collectors; the tax represents a very great deal of the prices we pay!)
Once our tour completed, we settled in for a quick tasting at the visitor centre – a 10-year whiskey and a 15-year whiskey.  The difference is indeed noticeable – and a splash of water helps to moderate the burning, which I suppose is why whiskey and water is a thing.  (Interestingly, this is just a LITTLE water; an eye dropper, gently used.  Noted, in the event I am ever called upon to serve someone whiskey and water.)
It still has a bit of the burn to it, of course, but an interesting, earthy flavor.  Many elements coming together.  You can see why in Gaelic it’s “the water of life.”  Warming, certainly, on a cold, rainy day like this one, and it was fortifying as we braced ourselves to step back out into the wet.
Our last formal stop of the day was Ballindaloch Castle, whose claim to fame is mainly that it’s still occupied by the same family that built it, years and years later.  More the castle of a laird than a clan chieftain, it’s got a number of the features we’ve seen at other big properties – gardens, picnic areas, and whatnot – and for an additional charge you can tour the castle itself and admire the ridiclously vast collection of china, furniture from the 1700s, authentic paintings from even earlier than that, ancient weaponry, and whatnot.
It is an interesting sort of mixed bag of feelings, touring one of these places.  On the one hand, there are some truly beautiful objects, and occasionally some spiffy stories as well.  On the other, as an uncouth North American, few things inspire class rage quite like seeing a whole hallway full of photos of the family at various Royal events (with invitations, of course, prominently displayed), or a casually-displayed bit of artwork in the nursery that depicts on one side a young girl in plain brown coat, sitting on an obviously lower-class stoop with a bulldog seated next to her and on the other, a girl of similar age, but wearing a fashionable coat in Black Watch plaid, carrying a muff, with a greyhound trotting along beside her.
One of those girls is labeled “The Masses,” and the other was labeled “The Classes.”  Want to guess which?
To cool off my inner Enid a bit, we went for a stroll in the gardens.  These were, as is usual for big places like this, lovely: great smooth lawns occasionally broken by beds of roses and other flowers, or huge, majestic trees.  There was a “doo’cot” (a dovecote; here we learned that dove droppings were once considered a cure for baldness) and a tiny building dressed up to look like a train station: inside were elaborate toy trains, whether for the family alone or for the masses visiting the grounds was unclear.
Mark and I also had a little conversation about our favorite flowers. I like roses best: vivid and varied in color and scent, all the intricate layers unfurling and unfolding around a golden heart that’s rarely seen.  He likes lilies the best, the sort with a single white petal curling round, simple and graceful and austere in form.  I mused there might be a personality test in there somewhere; he seems inclined to agree.
As everyone was still a bit damp from all the earlier rain, we adjourned briefly to our lodgings to change and dry off a bit before heading to dinner at a place called Tannochbrae, in Dufftown.  It wasn’t difficult to find (hunting for a new place is pretty easy in a village with just two primary streets!) and soon we were being escorted to “the bar” to wait by one of the best candidates for the label “strapping young man” I’ve seen in some time…an enormous fellow whose polite soft-spokenness was deeply at odds with a frame that would be more at home punching someone through an oaken door at a pub.  (Also not from around here; his accent sounded familiar, though I didn’t place it until he mentioned it to other diners that he was from Yorkshire.)
Tannochbrae is a guest house as well, so “the bar” was really more of a tiny room crammed to the gills with multitudes of whiskies; a slightly larger area (with, happily, a crackling fire) allowed seating while we waited to be seated for dinner – deep leather armchairs and sturdy wood furnishings that suggested the smoking-room.  The Yorkshireman took our orders for dinner, and we discovered with some mild dismay that the place was rather expensive – but what the hell.  Here we were, so we might as well move forward.
I had a pheasant breast, prepared with bacon and currant sauce, with carrots cooked with star anise and a honey glaze, boiled potatoes, and cauliflower/broccoli cheese, followed by a creme brûlée.  It. Was. Ridiculous.  The Yorkshireman bustled about attentively, looking after us as well as a table of folk who were having some sort of insanely expensive whiskey themed dinner (he’d bring them a whiskey, tell them about it, and then leave the bottle) and who were speaking a language that none of us could readily identify, but that didn’t sound Gaelic, or French, or Spanish, or German.
As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, we saw the Yorkshireman speaking to the chef, who was ALSO a simply massive individual.  (Mark commented that if he was in a tavern with those guys it’d be the safest tavern ever; nobody would dare rob the place for fear of having their heads bashed in.)
As we left, the sound of piping caught our attention, reminding us that tonight was practice night for the local junior division of the bagpipe corps.  (Or whatever it is called.) This meant a group of teenage folk, boys and girls, playing rousing pipe tunes as the drummers tapped away and one (the most senior, I suppose) kept time.  And, really, they were pretty good – it was the just-noticeable wheeze at the end of each piece that marked them as trainees, more than any irregularity in the performance itself.  (Some of the trainees were pretty small folk, too; one girl really didn’t seem much taller than the pipes she was carrying!)
At last the order came to “fall out,” and the group dispersed.  On that note, so did we…making our way back to Fairbank House and thence to bed at last.

An old travel diary, day 11: Return to the mainland

Our ferry this afternoon was scheduled for 2 pm, which left us with a goodly bit of time to wander round the downtown area in Stornoway.  Had a chance to purchase some Harris Tweed accessories, including a little bag and a new wallet; a little pricey, but nothing like as dear as a coat would have been – and really, what but the single most famous local handicraft should one collect as a souvenir?
We also had a chance to do a little geocaching, and had a couple of interesting encounters.  One of them was a man who happened to live across the street from our B&B and let us in on a little detail of the changed ownership I wouldn’t have guessed: the prior owner was arrested and ejected from the island for…well, um…possession of inappropriate material involving young folk, shall we say.  As this rather extraordinary bit of news sunk in we also happened to encounter a fellow with a chainsaw, who advised us to check out the little church we were standing next to – the only Anglican Church in the Outer Hebrides, believe it or not.  It was rather cute, really: plain white inside for the most part, with some handsome gilded embroidery and a little memorial to the 1919 sinking of a ship just off the harbour.
Eventually it was time to be heading to our ferry for the longest crossing of our trip to date, from Stornoway to Ullapool.  Here things briefly got much TOO exciting; arriving what we thought was just five minutes late for our ferry check-in we found the check in gate shut tight.  Sprinting out to find a warden we were told to park near the check-in gate and wait.
So we waited.  And waited.  And waited.
We waited while all the big heavy goods trucks drove in.
We waited while all the foot passengers entered.
We waited while all the cars loaded themselves on.
I am ashamed to admit I panicked somewhat, having been assailed at once by visions of being shunted to a later ferry or worse, having to stay in Lewis a third night, throwing off our entire vacation plan and possibly ruining the trip.  That I’d contributed to this in some way by shopping didn’t help in the slightest, either.
At long last we were waved forward by a warden, who gave us a bit of a dressing down for how late we were.  (We were sort of baffled, as we were quite sure the ferry had been for two o’clock.). However,  this bit of public shaming out of the way, we were soon able to settle in for our ride, have a bite of lunch, and as I type Mark is catching a much-needed nap next to me as the sea rolls past.
Overall, though Lewis was interesting, I’m glad I don’t live there – and I’m also a bit glad we’re not staying for a third night.
— Much later —
Back on the mainland of Scotland at last.  It’s startling how dramatic the shift in scenery is once you get off the islands – or perhaps it is just the extreme difference between windswept Lewis and the thickly forested mainland; whatever it is that does it, it really drove home how much we’d come to miss trees.
We had a long, long, LONG drive to do, and much of it wasn’t of particular interest, aside from the very green and very steep hillsides of the Scottish glens. (I will say, though: after Lewis, the rest of Scotland’s sheep population seems suddenly really, really sparse.)
We were making our way to Dufftown, in the heart of the Speyside region.  This part of Scotland is known for its whiskey distilleries: fully half of all the distilleries in Scotland are housed here. (Think about that for a moment.  Seriously.  Half the distilleries.  In Scotland.)
On our way, of course, we couldn’t miss at least taking a quick look at the most famous of all Scotland’s lochs – Loch Ness.  This very long and narrow but frighteningly deep lake sits deep in Scotland’s “Great Glen” (there are a lot of glens, but this one gets a capital G) and is of course the purported home of some sort of massive but very elusive cryptid, and a pretty scary-huge cottage industry has sprung up around her.  Would be monster-hunters have a choice of hunting experiences and Nessie-themed adventures to go on.
We visited the ruins of nearby Urquhart Castle to get a better look at the loch.  The castle itself was closed…but the car park permitted some pretty surprisingly decent views.  (Urquhart is another one of those castles, like Eilean Donan, that was blown up by a set of defenders in order to prevent a different set of defenders from taking/holding it; it’s pretty crazy how common this story is in Scottish history.  Unlike Eilean Donan, it doesn’t have a family looking after it, and so it sits by the lakeside in a state of picturesque decay.)
Even if we hadn’t made this small detour I think we would have been quite late at our B&B for check-in; usual check in time was meant to be 5-7, and we were pushing 8:00.  Fortunately, our rooms hadn’t been re-sold, and our hostess, a kind and gregarious English lady, was remarkably welcoming. (Our hosts have almost without exception not been native Scots, and I have to admit I am really starting to wonder why.)
The B&B is really very nice here, with a four star rating instead of the threes we’ve been staying in up to now; we’ve got a king size bed and private bath, though it’s not en suite.  There wasn’t much time to enjoy the room just yet, though; we were also getting perilously close to the time when restaurants here tend to stop serving food, so after dropping our bags we hastily adjourned to the Stuart Arms, a local pub in Dufftown (pronounced “Duffton.”). This is a tiny town with just two major streets, each lined with the brown stone houses that are typical of Speyside.
Despite our arriving just five minutes before the end of serving time, the waitress was able to score us a seat, and soon we were re-fortified to follow up on our new landlady’s intriguing suggestion that we pop round to the local Royal British Legion hall, as there was likely to be music happening there.
And so there was.  In a room full of mismatched tables that probably hadn’t been much updated since 1970 or so – perhaps even earlier – a motley crew of Scots, most over the age of fifty, sat listening to a sizeable crew of musicians up at the front of the room.  There was an accordion, a bevy of fiddlers, and an ancient drummer rattling away with intense, zenlike concentration, while a piano lent backup from the very farthest end of the room. Nearest the door, a pocket-size bar was staffed by a slightly-disreputable-but-cheery-looking bartender, who was happy to recommend a whiskey for Les and Mark (the Balvenie 12-year double wood.  To a whiskey newbie like me that means very little, but when in Rome.)
We were also accosted – er, welcomed – immediately by a small, bright-eyed Scotsman with snow-white hair and a neat, pointed beard.  He was at once keen to bid us pull up a chair and to learn where we were from, where we’d been in Scotland, what we thought of everything, and so on.  He also happened to be a wealth of knowledge on the subject of the Trans-Canada Railway, which has strong Scottish connections – hence all the little towns with Scottish names at every railroading camp from sea to sea.  Dufftown is twinned with a city in Quebec, actually, and residents from one town often make visits to the other in alternating years; the fellow we talked to had visited Canada often enough that he’d been more than once to see the Calgary Stampede.
Our jolly host invited us to take a seat at a table just in time for us to hear the encore of Patrick, a fellow who didn’t seem a day younger than eighty but who led the assembled in a couple of rousing traditional songs about a young lad from Skye with a wandering eye and such.  Nearly all the locals knew the words and many sang/clapped along; informal ceilidhs like this one have apparently been going on in Dufftown every Monday night for fifteen years.
At the moment this is possibly the single most legit cultural experience we’ve had in Scotland.
We were only able to see some of the show, given that it was so late, but I’m still happy we managed to catch it before heading back to our B&B to collapse into bed.  A busy day ahead of us in Whisky Country.

An old travel diary, day 10: The Sabbath, for godless heathens

First, a haiku:
Isle of Lewis Day
Wow, that’s old!  What was it for?
Don’t step in sheep poop
It was Sunday in the Isle of Lewis today, which means everything was closed, with the very very few exceptions of a couple of dining establishments that serve tourists.  Other than that we were on our own and out of doors: even the grocery stores were shut on Sundays, so it was definitely a good thing we’d picked up some groceries beforehand.
This said, there was still plenty to see on the isle, so like the good little godless heathens we were we loaded ourselves up and headed out for a little further adventure.
Our first stop was the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a concrete bridge that picturesquely spans a little gorge leading down to one of the broad, sandy beaches.  This one was built by a gentleman by the name of Leverhulme, a soap magnate of some sort who had the brilliant idea of building a road to connect the two long roads that extend from the main highway north to the very ends of Lewis.  The locals didn’t really want to DO roadworks for the rich guy, unfortunately…they wanted land to croft, thank you very little, not industrial jobs. And so they pretty much ignored his grand project, and the bridge that was part of phase 1 is really all that’s left of it.
The beach nearby made for a pleasant walk, as well: the sun was out, making the water a vivid blue-green and turning the sands pale gold.  The route down gave us a ringside seat for a flock of geese – goslings and all – some of whom had run across the road in front of our car as we drove out.  It was obviously a haven for rabbits, as well; an array of beachfront rabbit condos were tucked into the grassy verge near the beach’s lone picnic table, and judging but the sheer number of holes and…er, other signs…the population must have been substantial.
Toward the far end of the beach were some pretty spectacular spires of rock, as well; at least one of them had a natural tunnel of sorts leading right through it.  Too wet to wade through, but pretty to look at, in a sort of mysterious way.  Mark was particularly fond of these beach-megaliths, and seemed to quite enjoy his time wandering around and through them.  (It was a first class brood spot.)  I’m not generally much of a beach person, but the isolatedness of this one was quite appealing, if only it hadn’t been so damned cold whenever the wind blew.
And make no mistake, there’s a lot of wind.  Wind turbines are common on the isle of Lewis, and they seem to be moving at a brisk pace most of the time.  More on this in a moment.
Our next stop was the prosaically named “Butt of Lewis,” the northernmost point of the isle – and, incidentally, of our vacation.  This is, similar to Neist Point, a rocky, craggy tip of the island; huge boulders rise up from the sea here, showing swirling folds along their sides and dozens on dozens of nooks that form havens for seabirds and their nests.
On one of these rocks, quite low to the ocean, a local pointed out a seal, basking in the sunshine.  Not doing a whole hell of a lot, to be sure, but I was happy to see him anyway.  A seal! In the wild!  Something else crossed off the Scottish bingo card.  Selkie country indeed, though the waters here are freezing.  Can’t be that comfortable for them!
The local also told us a tale or two about the lighthouse that keeps vigil on the point.  Vaguely Spanish in flavor, it’s automated now but was manned until a surprisingly short time ago; remember what I said about wind?  In the winter the winds here are so very high that the waves crashing against the rocks would be thrown so high that water would come down the chimneys, putting out the fires in the keeper’s family home.  (We also asked, on a whim, about peat.  Yes, he does cut his own and yes, he does still burn it in fires.  He doesn’t sell it any more, though – too much trouble.)
Aside from wind and peat, the other thing the Isle of Lewis is very rich in is Neolithic sites…or, at least, constructs that long predate the advent of the written word, and whose greater purpose, if any, is long forgotten.  A surprising number of these are unmanned, as well, seemingly trusting to the honor system and the remoteness of the locations to ensure nobody damages the ruins.
The first of these we visited was Steincleat, a circle of stones with what appears to be a collapsed cairn set into the side of it, not unlike a drawing of a moon in its orbit.  Like most things in Scotland, it’s reached by climbing a hill; unlike most things in Scotland, the hill in question is remarkably mucky.  All that grass only LOOKS like grass; it’s actually clumps of sturdier ground surrounded by boggy moorland of varying degrees of wetness.  Got my feet damp here, unfortunately, as that would stay with me for most of the day.
Steincleat’s hill is ALSO heavily covered in shit.  No, literally.  Between the rabbits and the sheep there are pellets of various sizes literally everywhere, and it’s worth watching your step.  This would, sadly, turn out to be the case most places we went that hadn’t explicitly been sheep-gated.
All this said, there is something weirdly interesting about these old ruins.  What were they?  A ritual site?  A burial cairn?  Just a sheep fold?  What motivated people, thousands of years ago, to drag all these big heavy stones up there and arrange them just so?
Pondering this, we made our way to a “Norse mill and kiln” a little way down the road.  This site was also unmanned, situated prettily in a slightly sheltered bit of the hillside where a brisk stream likely represents the remains of the long-ago mill-race.  Two little huts, thatched roofs weighted into place with the same stones that make up the walls, now house the reconstructed kiln and mill.
When I hear “kiln” I think pottery, but not in this case, as it turned out.  Back when there was a working mill here, one would have to sort of lightly toast the grain before grinding it, and the kiln was where that was done.  Once finished, you could take your toasted grain and dump it into the hopper over at the mill, whence your grain would be fed into the holes atop the rotating millstones for grinding and spill out into a bin at the bottom.  A lever allowed you to set the distance between the millstones a little farther apart or a little nearer together to adjust the fineness of your grind.
I’m not sure whether the “Norse” in “Norse mill” means it was actually used BY Norsemen (not unlikely given the Viking tendency to come ransack the place) or whether it just means “in the style of Norsemen”, but it was pretty similar to other mills I’ve seen in my life, albeit much smaller and more remotely-set.  The stones were horizontal, though, and massive.  I found myself staring at the little hopper where your flour was meant to come out, just three slabs of coarse slate, and thinking for about the four millionth time how damned difficult life must have been then.
This theme carried on into our next stop – Dun Carloway Broch.  A “Broch” is a round tower with an unusual double-walled construction, found as far as anyone knows only in Scotland; they look a bit like watchtowers, but may also have served as housing for important folks in the surrounding lands.  This particular one happens to be the best preserved of the lot, and stands on a high, windswept hill (not that everything on Lewis isn’t windswept) that must in its time have been rather lonely, though today there are a couple of crofter’s homes nearby.  As you scale the hill for a look at the tower, you can look down into them – and, if you’re versed in the construction of blackhouses, there are unmistakably the foundations for some in the croft yards, now being used as material storage or sheep folds.  (Some of the sheep were obligingly hanging out in the remnants of the fold where their ancient ancestors probably slept.)
There isn’t much left of the tower itself, of course.  Doors so low that they barely seem to qualify as human-scale let you duck through a low wooden gate and out of the wind, but none of the original floors of the broch survive.  (Interestingly it seems that the stairs may have been nestled into the space between the two walls, though.). Again the impression is one of deep remoteness.
Not so much, of course, as the remoteness embodied by the Callanish Standing Stones, which we returned to as our next stop.  I neglected to mention the broch’s age, but it’s believed that it dates to the time of Christ.  This seemed pretty goddamn old to us, until we considered that the Callanish stones date back to 5000 BC as far as we know.  That would mean that they predate the great pyramid of Giza.  By about, oh, 2500 years, give or take.  I honestly have no capacity to comprehend time on that scale in any meaningful way; these things are so old that their age is literally meaningless.
The obvious parallel here is Stonehenge – but unlike Stonehenge, here you can actually walk up to and around the stones – touch them, even; run your hand, as I did, over a band of pink granite and ponder the site’s purpose.  What could they have been for?  Astronomy?  Ritual?  Burial?  Did they come here to celebrate Beltane, put out all their fires, then light them again from a central flame kindled by a priest?  Did it have something to do with the distant outline of a reclining woman some say you can see in the hills? Did they sacrifice here, as Mark thought, looking on the great central stone and the eye-like nodule in its side?
The new age-y folk have come here, to be sure; remnants of their passing linger in the bouquets and remnants of garlands and such that they leave behind.  I cannot begrudge them; who can say whether any of us are right?  Does it matter?  Are things like the Callanish Stones not a mirror of sorts, reflecting ourselves back to ourselves?
Either way, it’s a wild and mystical sort of spot. (And, like other places of power we’ve visited this trip, it drained Mark’s phone battery instantly, only to have it restored to 75% immediately after returning to the car.  What do the ancients have against the iPhone 4S?  The pagan and the Christian gods both seem to have it in for it, for some reason.)
By this time it was getting quite late in the day, but we had one more stop we wished to make: at least getting a view of the beach where the Lewis Chessmen were found.  This proved easy enough to do, though we did manage to take one wrong turn and found ourselves in the…settlement (“village” seems like too strong a word) of Ard Uig, which seems to consist of…a few houses in poor repair, a handful of battered vehicles, and a general air of desolation.  Even the “shop” some villages on the isles have – a kind of combination post office, general store, laundrette, etc. – was absent, and we were more than happy to turn right around and leave the ill-maintained track of a road behind.
The beach itself is like others on Lewis, and there was not time to hunt for the spot – but Mark did pose for a picture with a “life sized” chessman before we made our way back to Stornoway.
There was still some time before dinner when we made it back to town, so we stopped in at Stornoway’s war memorial.  It seems that, for some reason, the isles suffered heavy losses in the war, heavier than most of the rest of Britain, and the monument was meant to be a grand and somber tower one could climb and reflect.  However, the tower quickly became unsafe to climb, and so it’s barred to visitors, the plaques within relocated to a nearby circle of standing stones for those who wish to pause and reflect.
It was while pausing and reflecting that I heard it: a song, a female voice in a language I didn’t recognize, soft and mournful and plaintive against the cold, ever-present wind.  Curious, I climbed the hill to investigate and soon located its source: the female half of a pair of backpackers, standing at the base of the tower in one of the few sheltered spots. It seemed…rude…to disturb her, and so I simply stood by, waiting and listening.
As she finished, Karen asked what she had been singing (she’d been attracted by the song, too.) It was, the girl said in broken English, a traditional song from her home in the Ukraine.  Something about remembrance, though the language barrier precluded much more information than that.
A somber sort of note on which to move to dinner, but a haunting moment.
It being Sunday, of course, hardly anything was open to serve us food – but we did manage to get reservations at “Eleven,” the buffet restaurant in essentially the island’s answer to Holiday Inn.  This was…more or less exactly what you’d expect in the circumstances; some rather nice pork roast complemented by indifferent mashed potatoes along with some sort of beet business and…cabbage with cheese?…I’m not entirely certain.  Still, there was a light, fluffy mango cheesecake in the offing before we returned to our hotel and collapsed with an episode of something British Detective-ey.  (“Wycliffe,” which I’d never seen before.  Not as fun as “Lewis,” though.  Why are British detectives so craggy, anyway?)

An old travel diary, day 9: To the outer Hebrides

Another travel day today, this one with an especially early beginning, as we had to be at the harbour for our 9:30 scheduled departure a full 45 minutes early.  This one departs from Uig, near where we split from the road for the fairy glen yesterday.
Porridge with honey for breakfast this morning – not much of an anniversary meal, but nicer than I would have thought; not slimy as I usually fear with porridge.  It rained heavily as we got into the car to leave – that “unsettled” weather again – but as a nice little trade off, we got to see a rather magnificent rainbow, a full, sky-spanning arch with the complete spectrum brightly represented.  (I hope it’s a sign.  Perhaps it’s an anniversary sign.)
I think this is easily the biggest of the ferries we’ve ridden yet, and the longest crossing so far: disturbingly, before getting on board we had to hand in a little card with our names, sex, and ages.  What is that for?  In case we sink?
Be that as it may, we had a few minutes before boarding to check out the tiny pottery next to the pier.  It’s known for its whimsical designs – puffins, chickens, and whatnot – and there’s a little workspace where you can watch the potter – a cute young girl with a ponytail, in this case – work on new pots.  We bought a little something here – a “quaich,” a kind of drinking cup that was typically filled with whiskey or brandy and shared communally as a mark of hospitality.  This one’s blue and white, like our other tableware, and has a simple knotwork design that should, I think, suit its purpose well.
This morning’s sailing is packed to the gills with…runners and their families; it seems there’s a half marathon on Lewis today.  And now, half an hour into the crossing, I am the only member of my party not asleep, and I am watching blue-gray sea meld with blue-gray sky, the horizon only briefly disturbed by misty ripples of rock that must be various other isles of the Outer Hebrides.  There is something incongruous about knowing that out there somewhere in all that slate-colored wildness there are seals and dolphins and sharks and all manner of creatures, living as they have for always, while here we are inside on a boat full of dogs and long-distance runners, with some sort of home auction program flickering bland enthusiasm and faded flowered wallpaper on a screen at the fore of the cabin.
Perhaps it’s just a sign I need some coffee.
— Some time later —
I spent the rest of the ferry ride sitting in the canteen having a coffee and a bit of shortbread and watching the seas drift past.  When at last we emerged, it was into the tiny town of Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.  The first thing one notices out here is that English starts to take second place to Gaelic on the signs; there are more Gaelic speakers here than in most other places.
Lewis and Harris are actually a single island connected by an isthmus on which Tarbert sits, though their landscapes are quite different.  The isles are, I’m told, very strong in their culture yet, including the fairly rigorous observance of the Sabbath; we discovered very quickly that we’d have a hard time getting into anything on Sunday as the sidewalks would essentially be rolling right up during that time.
Very well, then: we set up a plan to take in most of the isle’s interior attractions, though there aren’t many.  For a start we set off on a loop road round Harris, the southernmost portion.
The guide refers to this part of the world as “an inhospitable moonscape,” and that’s not far off.  In some parts of the world nature bothers to cover up the rock beneath our feet with, say, dirt or grass or trees or something; not so here.  Admittedly Magnus Barelegs is supposedly to blame for the trees; lore says he burnt them all down and left the island bare.  But there is precious little else in the way of vegetation: heather and coarse grasses in amongst the rocks, but that’s about it.
There are sheep, though.  Of course.  Here they provide the most important of raw materials for the famous Harris Tweed, the only fabric with an Act of Parliament dictating what qualities a textile must have before it can bear the name or the orb trademark: dyed and hand-woven on the outer Hebrides, much as only a small subset of the cheeses calling themselves Parmesan are true Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Traditionally many of the dyes come from the isle as well: green from nettles, purple from iris roots, and so on.
We learned all this at a tiny visitor centre in the middle of nowhere; the cheery proprietress informed us that she’d been to Petrolia in the past.  Afterward, we took a brief pause at a beach.  The Outer Hebrides is known for its beaches, apparently, and are popular for kayaking and surfing (!), though I doubt very much I’d have the stamina to swim in water that cold.  It’s also extremely windy, or was during our visit.  Personally I don’t think of a proper beach as somewhere you have to wear a jacket to go to, but the Brits apparently disagree.
Our path wound in and out along a pretty steeply-slanted one lane road through this weird moon-landscape until we reached St. Cuthbert’s, a tiny, tiny medieval church on the isle’s far southern tip.  A pair of female bards are buried here; one, at her own request, was buried face-down, to keep her “lying mouth” – her own words – from causing further trouble.  (There’s a story there, I’m sure.) Nearby, a hotel offered food and drink; we stopped in at the nearly empty restaurant for some excellent fish chowder before winding our way back north and west onto Lewis.
Most of the weaving industry has been relocated here, and there are some 600 weavers still on the island; we drove past several houses that seemed to have sunrooms to one side with big looms ready to be worked.  It’s also marginally less inhospitable, though instead of steep rocky hillsides like Harris, Lewis looks very much like wild moorland. A little deceptively so, honestly; most of that stuff that looks like rolling grassland is in fact peat bog.
Peat happens when there’s especially poor drainage in soil; plants sprout and die but then cannot fully rot, as there’s not enough oxygen getting in down there.  This suffocating plant mass eventually sort of merges with the soil to produce a substance that the locals slice off in brick-sized chunks, resulting in what looks like a pile of the world’s least appetizing brownies. These are dried out and then carefully stored until it gets cold, at which point they’ll be burnt for fuel, resulting in that distinctive smelling smoke we can taste in whiskey.  Peat-cutting is a summer activity in the isles, so here and there we were able to see people slicing off the bricks, or piling them up to dry.
Our first stop was the visitor centre for the Callanish standing stones, which we’ll be making a proper visit to tomorrow.  Like Stonehenge, this stone circle was erected approximately forever ago by people nobody really knows much about for reasons that are largely unknown but are (say it with me) probably of religious significance.  More on these tomorrow.
It was already getting a bit late by this time, and we hadn’t yet checked into our B&B, but we thought perhaps we might just have time to pop round to Argol Blackhouse on our way to Stornoway.  A “Blackhouse” is a type of construct that was the done thing in the isles many years ago and which had two primary features: one, your animals lived in the same house as you and two, everything was warmed by a central peat-burning hearth.  On the upside, this meant you could keep everyone warm a lot more easily, and the rising smoke killed bugs that might otherwise have been lurking in the thatch.  On the downside, I expect people had a pretty strong tendency to die of lung cancer back in the day.
Sadly, as we arrived the little one-room centre was just closing down, but we had a chance to roam the site and investigate the nearby ruined blackhouse, which helpfully labeled all the rooms.  I don’t know about you, but I think I would be…reluctant…to have my kitchen quite so directly across from my cowshed. (The smell must have been astonishing.)
Our B&B in Stornoway is…interesting.  Weirdly sparse furnishings, no art on the walls at all, and the general feel about it of a staged house.  (Which it may well be given that there is a big for sale sign out front.) In comparison with some of the prior places we’ve been it just doesn’t quite seem like they’re trying as hard, though the person on hand to help out (not the owner) seems kind.  Stornoway itself didn’t make much of a good first impression, either; gray and dark in the rain, with a number of shops that seemed to be going out of business.
As in Skye, it turns out that restaurants and other such establishments book up very, very quickly on a Saturday evening when everyone and their dog wants to go out; the only place in town we could get a spot was this crazily expensive place at a local hotel.  And…true, it had local lamb on the menu (and Lewis lamb is apparently particularly unusual in flavor; the huge amount of heather in their diet means their meat is sweeter than the norm).  But…
We were tired.  And hungry.  And even though it was our anniversary, did we really want to eat out at a pricey place because it was the only thing available?…
In the end, we ended up going to “Golden Ocean” – a cheap Chinese takeaway with a vivid turquoise shopfront, an equally vivid purple interior, and a seating area equipped with abundant IKEA.  The cider was a bit bland and tasteless, the fried rice bore no resemblance to anything I’ve had before…but it was inexpensive, and different from all the pub food we’ve eaten lately.
Afterward, we spent some quality time together watching a British mystery show and wished each other happy anniversary and a good next year.  Starting from a bare little white room at the end of the world, it seems sort of symbolic.  May it all be up from here.

An old travel diary, day 8: Skye sightseeing

The Isle of Skye has quite a lot to see.
That’s the short version.  Here’s the slightly longer version:
Rolled out of bed to find that Mark hadn’t really slept at all thanks to a combination of my illness (?), his inability to sleep without something covering him, and the regrettable lack of top sheets.  (In his defense, a duvet IS much too heavy.). Still, there was – is – nothing for it; our time is limited and we want to see and explore as much as we can…so off we go.
Our very first act was to book a table that evening at one of the local restaurants.  We had cause to be glad we did, I think: even phoning first thing in the morning, we couldn’t get a table within the prime dinner range.  9:00 for dinner it was; this in mind we dropped by a grocery to collect picnic ingredients for lunch.
The Isle of Skye is sort of an assemblage of peninsulas – three of them to be precise.  We came in along the southernmost, and today planned a circular route that would take us up and around the upper two.  As you leave Portree to the north to head up and around the northeastern peninsula, you wind along the edge of the Cullin range (those mountains supposedly carved out and thrown up by the great battle between Cu Chulainn and Scathach) and come almost immediately to the first of the notable landmarks of our journey: the Old Man of Storr.
This is a spire of rock, perhaps one of the giants – legend has it some of them fell to earth and became stone.  A path winds up to it, rocky and very steep; especially rainy as it was, it’s a strenuous climb, such that your calves burn in protest on the way up and your knees shiver with strain on the way down. We did a bit of it anyway, eventually scrambling winded (in my case anyway) to a point where we could see the Old Man from a bit closer than the road.  It looks lonely there, standing all by itself, though lonely in a proud sort of way.  Perhaps nobody fucks with him and gets away with it, either.
The rain continued, off and on, as we peered over the overlook onto Kilt Rock and its accompanying falls.  The Rock is so named because its vertical “folds” resemble those on a kilt.  Impressive, but we were being rained on pretty hard, so we didn’t stay long.
At least the rain slowed a bit as we rounded the northern tip of the peninsula, our path meandering along sometimes-precipitous drops, through and over rocky moorland.  It isn’t the high season yet – not for a couple of weeks – but already the number of visitors we’re seeing is quite surprisingly large.  Plenty of Europeans – Germans, French, Dutch – but also a surprising number of explorers from Asia.  The Chinese folk I’ve seen tend to move in packs, on big buses, as we saw in Glencoe; Koreans and Japanese folk have been in smaller bunches.  (Cat hats are plentiful.)
Our next main stop was the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of small thatched huts situated on a slightly bleak hillside.  These were actual crofters’ huts, and inside were collections of artifacts and stories telling more about the lives of those on the isles before the days of, say, electricity, or plentiful ferry crossings.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like living with up to fourteen people out of three rooms in a little thatched hut that, to this day, smells strongly of peat – a dense, smoky, earthy smell that you can often pick up, in somewhat reduced strength, from a good whiskey.  At least it keeps the wind out, I suppose.  Harder still to imagine rising so early in the morning that there was time to scythe a sheaf or two of grain, thresh it, and turn it into oatmeal for everyone to eat before the children went to school.  (No thanks; I’m not a morning person.).
Crofters’ wives often had the toughest of the work to do – field work AND cleaning AND cooking AND shopping, like as not; one of the items on display was an interesting contraption that would allow a crofter’s wife to carry eggs safely to market to be traded for other goods, a common practice.  (One that still seems to be carried on on the island: as we drove around I saw a number of signs advertising fresh eggs, sometimes with essentially a little egg box and a place to deposit cash for them next to it.  The honor system?)
Overall, I’m happy to live in an age where I don’t need to devote quite so much of my energy to obtaining sustenance; certainly I’m pleased that I have never had to bleed a cow, mix the blood with oats and whip up a “black pudding” to avoid starvation.  (This was indeed a common practice; the family milk cow was so prized she was often kept in her own byre in the winter, to keep her warm and producing milk.  Eating her would doubtless have been just about unthinkable.)
We also got a potential answer to why it is that we’ve seen so few pubs out here on the islands.  In England there seems to be a pub about every ten feet or so; since it was pretty typical not to have much space for socializing in one’s house, pubs served as a kind of communal living room.  On the island, though, it was more typical to co-opt one of someone’s buildings as “the ceilidh house” and have social gatherings there; this explains the absence of pubs to at least some degree, though it does make it a bit frustrating to find somewhere for lunch.
Ah well.  We had other lunch plans anyway: to locate and picnic in the “fairy glen” on the island.  This isn’t signposted really much of anywhere, despite being one of the isle’s notable sights; we had to ask a local which road to take.  A sharp left, just past the Uig Hotel (Uig is the rather bizarre name of the port town from which our ferry will leave on Day 9.). This takes you up a steep and winding one-lane road – and then down an equally steep and winding one-lane road that looks very much as though it’s meant to be someone’s driveway: we stopped and asked directions from a local gentleman just to confirm we were on the right path.  I couldn’t really make head or tail of directions like “It’s just down the brae”, but the answer seemed to be affirmative, so on we went…
And then, there we were.
It is instantly obvious why the islanders might believe fairies lived here.  The glen is a rich, emerald green that almost glowed from within in the sunlight as we entered, and the rounded hills – almost conical in places – bear a startling resemblance to some of the cairns and mounds we’ve seen elsewhere on our journey, constructed by humans.  One of them is crowned with a rock that looks for all the world like a tiny, turreted castle, and the sides of the hills have formed natural terraces through some quirk of erosion.  A tiny picture-perfect mini-loch fills one part, and the trees and ferns and wildflowers seem more delicate here.  An open area with a partially-ruined wall contains a soft carpet of green grass that would be ideal for dancing, and one of the rock faces nearby had exposed a patch of brilliant white shaped very much like a harp.
Here we stopped and had our picnic, though the light didn’t cooperate by lingering, and the rain meant we spent most of our dining time in the car.  Still…”It’s not polite to visit someone’s house and eat without sharing,” I said to Mark, and tore off a bit of my sandwich, tossing it out into the glen for any, er, “locals” that might be there. (A few moments later I saw a kind of silvery flash dart through the greenery near where it landed.  A bird with rain-slick feathers?  Something else? Who can say? ;))
As we made our way out of the glen, the rain cleared, eventually brightening to a warm sunshine that would linger for the rest of the day (and indeed long into the evening; we’re far enough north here that it scarcely gets dark at all in the summertime.  I expect in the winter the opposite is true; the idea of spending days and days and days barely seeing the sun makes rather a good ground for understanding why so many people, especially in historical sources, called Scotland a bleak country.
At any rate, our next stop was Dunvegan, seat of the clan MacLeod.  Dunvegan is a good example of what I have christened “Clanstanding,” the apparent effort each clan makes to demonstrate their awesomeness in front of all the other clans.  Dunvegan isn’t all that LARGE a castle, but it’s got huge, dramatic gardens: a Victorian-era round garden, an older walled garden, a water garden with carefully planned falls…
Two odd things registered for me.  One: how remarkably luxurious, decadent even, it felt to walk across a soft, well-manicured lawn after days and days of hiking over rough Scottish countryside.  Even through my shoes, the difference was palpable.  Two: how starved I suddenly realized I had been for color.  Oh, there IS color in the Highlands, right enough, but most of it is shades of green and brown and gray, with the occasional splash of pinkish-purple.  To see red, or orange, or those bright deep blues, or pink…to see them all at once!  So much color in one place!  All of a sudden it makes complete sense that castle gardens like these are such attractions in themselves.
Within the castle, of course, other points of interest: the fairy flag, of course, wherever you believe it comes from – there it is, the once-golden fabric faded to a pale yellow-gray, mended here and there with vivid red thread.  The MacLeods are firm believers in its power, though: according to the castle staff, the chieftain offered its power to Winston Churchill during WWII. (Churchill declined politely.). We also learned of a chieftain who murdered his first wife by tossing her into the dungeon (which, disconcertingly, is literally right next to the drawing-room; more of an oubliette than a dungeon as we normally think of it, with a rather cruel slit in the wall that would allow the prisoners to smell the food from the kitchens.) There was also a drinking horn that formed part of the initiation rite for new chieftains: it would be filled with claret and had to be emptied in one go, without flinching, choking, or stopping.  (Since it holds a litre and a half that’s no small feat.)
We also learned a bit about St. Kilda, a tiny, TINY island in the middle of nowhere that is part of the MacLeod holdings.  So remote is it that there was no mail service: instead, the islanders would literally toss a waterproof bag full of it into the ocean attached to a boat-shaped float that read “please open.”  Astonishingly, this actually WORKED most of the time, even if it did mean that mail was often picked up in Norway to start its journey to the eventual recipient.  No man of St. Kilda could marry without having first created a horsehair rope; this would be used to hunt puffins and such, and demonstrated that he could feed a family.
As we headed back toward Portree for the evening, we passed by a tiny little building that was marked “Giant Angus MacAskill Museum.”  Curious, we took a look; though the sign said “OPEN,” the building didn’t appear to be inhabited.  There was a bell, though, with instructions to ring it, so this we did – and a short time later an elderly gentleman came down out of the house next to the building to let us in.
He was a MacAskill as well, as it turned out, and had established this little place to…well, presumably to make a little coin out of the tale of his ancestor, who was a bona fide giant at something like 7 feet 9 inches (and apparently he spent some time in Nova Scotia.) The museum was little, but full of artifacts (a giant sweater, for instance, or a chair so big I felt like a five year old sitting in it) and stories of his feats of strength.  There was even a replica of a coffin he’d have fit in, which was completely massive.
At this point it was still a long time before our 9:00 dinner reservation, so we headed out to Neist Point, the farthest west one can go on the Isle of Skye.  It is a long way out there, and consists mainly of one of Scotland’s trademark super twisty roads with passing places that goes past farms…and fields…and hills…and fields…and farms…and, eventually, The Three Chimneys, the only restaurant in the isles with a Michelin Star.  We weren’t wealthy enough to eat there (and anyway bookings are long LONG in advance) but it was still interesting to see, situated in a little white cottage so like all the others, very deliberately in the middle of nowhere.  (It’s a little too bad, really; I hear the food’s amazing.)
The Point itself sees visitors park in a little lot at the top of a very long, very steep cliff.  Stairs (with a fortuitous handrail) lead all the way down to the bottom, where one can stroll through what looks like the remains of a long-disused croft…and then all the way back UP on the other side, where a lighthouse overlooks the ocean amid picturesque rocks.  The adventurous (or the mad) can climb up farther, off to the side, where a very very tall cliff provides amazing views.  I know this because we climbed it.  It was quite a haul; very steep up and very steep down.  By the time we got back to the car my calves were shaking and my knees ached – but I’m not sorry I did it.  It was a hell of a view.
This little side trip completed, we returned to Portree for a dinner of sea scallops over risotto, with a cider on the side that was easily one of the best I’ve ever tasted.  (Thistly Cross, made in Dunbar over on the mainland.  The packaging claims its secret is that it’s exposed to the elements during fermentation.).
From there, back to the B&B at last, for a hard crash after a long day’s Explore.

An old travel diary, day 7: Over the sea to Skye

The night was a rough one: I woke at 4 am from a nightmare of bugs crawling all over me and it was hours before the psychosomatic itchiness subsided.
Once more unto the breach: we opened the day’s travel with a drive into Glen Nevis, home of the Nevis Range and the mighty Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak.  It’s also one of the wettest parts of Scotland, unfortunately, meaning that the rain and low-hanging clouds were veiling the whole thing pretty heavily in mist.  We drove for a time, occasionally driving sloooooooowly up to the sheep standing in the middle of the road and waiting until they took the hint and ambled casually out of our path.  As the road gradually got narrower, we had time to appreciate the differences between this glen and Glencoe; they’re both steep-sided and heavily verdant, but here the slides of sharp gravel are replaced by heavier, craggier stones nearer the road, dense trees covered with lichen.
We’d come to view the falls known as “the spout” in Gaelic, which lie about a kilometre from the end of the road, which gradually opens into a parking lot after spending some time as the now-familiar “one lane with passing places” model.  Here, a sign warned “danger of death” and encouraged proper footwear; but we’d come to see at least part of the prettiest short walk in Scotland, so on we went.
Spoiler: we didn’t make it all the way to the spout.  However, we did get to see a number of other rather beautiful waterfalls even though we did have to clamber over some nasty-sharp-looking rocks to do so.  Some hardy soul had pitched a small campsite by the trail-side, and there were a few shirts hung out to dry on a line; optimistic, I think, given the omnipresent damp.
Eventually it was back to the car for us, and onward to Mallaig for our ferry crossing.  As we drove, we noticed some great gouts of steam coming up in places; a steam train, most likely, very possibly the Hogwarts Express, which lives here.  This is Harry Potter film country, apparently a boon to the tourist market.  (It’s interesting to see just how much of Scotland seems to subsist on tourism; big chunks of this part of the country seem to make all their money in summer and then…I don’t know what they do in the off season.)
The ferry ride was brief – fortunate in more ways than one, as a large number of the passengers hadn’t bothered to turn off their car alarms.  As the ferry pitched and rolled in the choppy crossing, a chorus of alarms accompanied every heave; it began as funny, then annoying and eventually warped round to being funny again.  The waters below us were an interesting, shifting blue-green even in the rainy gray light; at one point we passed just above a…flock? school?…of jellyfish, watching them waver and swirl.  (I scanned the rocks for seals, but haven’t seen any yet…though this is certainly selkie country.)
I suppose when Flora McDonald brought Prince Charlie over here it was a much worse crossing; if the song is to be believed it was outright stormy then, instead of just intermittently coming down.
The intermittent rain’s been fairly constant all day, unfortunately, making today an awkward day for sightseeing.  It certainly makes the isle of Skye impressively atmospheric though.   From our landing point at Armadale we soon found ourselves driving through miles of rolling, moorlike ground (with still more sheep!) as we made our way to an attraction with a bit more indoor facilities to tour: Eilean Donan castle.  Every so often the moors were dotted with tiny little cottages that looked a bit like the way young children draw houses: window, door, window, pointy roof, chimney.  Or in this case two chimneys, one at either end.
Eilean Donan is That Castle On The Island With The Little Bridge Going To It; I guarantee you’ve seen it before.  Highlander?  Yeah.  That one.  It’s the seat of Clan MacRae, strategically situated at the meeting of three waters, and for hundreds of years it was just a ruin, after the English captured the teeny pro-Jacobite Spanish garrison here and blew the castle to smithereens with its own gunpowder.   Finally, in the 1920s, the then-clan-chief decided he really wanted his castle back up and running, so he teamed up with some colleagues to build himself one of the most romantic of the castles in the Highlands.  And it is,  I have to admit, rather charming, even a little coy as it poses for visitors, all daintily poised on its little island.
The interior’s all done up in Romantic Scottish Countryside, too; lots of little coats of arms and carven oak details.
Amusing aside: carved over the door in Gaelic is the date and “As long as a MacRae is inside this castle, a Fraser shall never be outside it.”  Apparently the MacRaes and the Frasers were BFFs.
Arrived in Portree, a cute little seaside town, and checked into our lodgings; I haven’t been feeling fantastic, I must admit.  Perhaps it’s tiredness, or perhaps I am flirting with being ill, or perhaps it’s the vague dread that’s been bugging me the last few hours, much to my irritation.   It’s meant to be a vacation.
Things continued somewhat exasperating as we scoured Portree’s tiny “downtown” looking for somewhere to eat that actually had room for us.  This was a surprisingly tough quest; we eventually ended up getting a place in line at a place called “The Antlers” which the Whitings held for us while Mark and I asked around at four or five other spots.  Nothing available before 8:30…
…which was a problem, because we’d spotted a sign in the square advertising a storytelling/music event starting at 9.
In the end we did indeed manage to get a table at The Antlers – and despite Mark’s “It looks like a Kelsey’s” misgivings it actually turned out to be a pretty nice little place.  I had a venison and apricot burger, which doesn’t sound as though it should work but did.
The real highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling event.  This was held in a little pub just off the town square, and was hosted with tremendous enthusiasm by an assortment of locals: Daniel, who appeared to be the ringleader, his second (whose name I forget – let’s call him Howard), Katrine, who played all the female parts, and their musical accompanist Minna, who provided very capable backing on her guitar.
It’s the first year the event has run, apparently; a medley of Skye island lore and traditional Scottish music they’re calling “The Misty Isle” after Skye itself.  They’ve had some pretty small crowds up to now, but perhaps we formed a turning point: so many came to the show we went to that they had to pull out extra chairs.
They opened by telling of the Giants, beings as superior to men in virtue as they were in size and strength – and of the giant hero Fingal, who has left signs of his passing all over Scotland, including here.  The tale of his marriage to – and loss of, spoiler alert – his wife Sadbh was interwoven with an assortment of fishing legends (including the last leviathan and the “blue men of the Minch”), the famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, the real-life story of Flora McDonald (unsurprisingly this was set to “Skye Boat Song”), and the creation of the Cuillin mountains due to a weeks-long battle between Cu Chulainn and the warrior woman Scathach.
It was rather community-theatre in production values – an assortment of costumes, props, and wigs and a single guitar before a painted backdrop – but it was weirdly endearing, and I think all of us found ourselves with warm feelings toward the motley crew of misfits storytelling their hearts out.  It was actually a pretty good show – well constructed and with good singing/performances – and I sincerely wish them well with it.
Afterward I went home and passed straight out, still feeling vaguely feverish.  Another rough night lay ahead as it turned out, but not just for me this time (unfortunately.)